Sunday, February 3

Dodging Disaster: A Guide to Resiliency and Preparedness (Part 3)- Shelter-in-Place

Emergency Preparedness:
Part III
Shelter-in-Place

By: Jamie Black

When we last saw our young Red Cross volunteer, she was working in an emergency shelter set up after her city was turned upside down by bombs set off downtown. People both young and old were affected by the disaster, even forcing residents of a nearby senior apartment complex to be evacuated. Thankfully, most of the residents had personal support networks formed in advanced, which allowed them to communicate their whereabouts to family and friends. As the city recovers and things begin to go back to normal, we find our volunteer going over her client casework files related to the downtown bombings,  six months later…

Sitting on the sofa watching the rain stream down the window, she pulls her case files into her lap and takes one last gulp of mid-morning coffee. Even though it had been six months since the bombings downtown, she still had a few loose ends to tie up with her Red Cross clients that were affected during the attack. Flipping through the files, she read through the descriptions of what had taken place that day. “First the ominous boom, then the shrieking of alarms and emergency response vehicles filled the air,” had said one of her clients. This particular client had been in the third floor of his office building when the bombs had went off, and he had explained to her the chaos that ensued after the initial explosion.
“Most of us were confused as to what had caused that horrible sound, but we knew it couldn't be good when our supervisor came in and told us to gather everyone into the conference room. There were no windows in the conference room and as employees crammed into the tight space, you could see the fear spread on our faces.”
She understood the man’s confusion and thought to herself how nerve-racking it would be to be confined to a conference room—with no knowledge of the commotion that was unfolding outside. But what the man did not know was that his supervisor was taking important safety precautions in the event of dangerous air quality due to an explosion or chemical hazard. You should not only take cover if you hear a strange sound like an explosion, but you should also take necessary safety precautions if you see a vapor cloud, smell a strange odor or feel nauseous and/or have burning eyes. In these situations, the outside air quality may be affected to the point that it is not safe to be outside or to evacuate. In these instances, it is usually safer to “shelter-in-place” until wind disperses and moves the material out of the area.

Figure: www.epa.gov provides a diagram of using
duct tape and plastic sheeting to shelter-in-place.
Knowing that her client’s supervisor had the knowledge to shelter-in-place in the event of an explosion gave her some sense of comfort. With his awareness of the situation and knowing how to handle a group of employees under a time of duress, he was able to keep them safe and await further updates about the attacks from within a safe and secure room in their office. When she followed up with her client, he had also remembered his supervisor sealing the conference room’s door with plastic sheeting and duct tape and placing a damp towel underneath the door—which are two critical steps to properly sheltering-in-place. After the room was secured and all heating/cooling systems had been shut off, the group of employees had huddled around a radio to listen for updates. As they listened intently for breaking news about the attack, their supervisor went around and took down names of all present in the room and then called his emergency contact with the room’s roster. As she read over his statement, she recalled how she had followed up with her client’s supervisor and thanked him for his quick thinking and preparedness—because he undoubtedly saved their lives that day.

If you see signs of a potential chemical or biological emergency which affects the outside air quality, there are important steps that you can take at home, at school, at work or in your car to remain safe until the “all-clear” is given.

If you are at home, here are safety tips to sheltering-in-place: 
  • Move all people and pets indoors immediately.
  • Close all doors, windows and curtains. Use plastic and duct tape to seal o­ any cracks or holes. Use a damp towel to place underneath your doors that can absorb any toxic gases present.
  • Close all vents and turn off ventilation systems.
  • Select a safe room that is above ground level (avoid basements) that has little to no windows.
  • Turn off anything that creates wind, generates extra heat or could generate sparks.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a damp cloth or handkerchief.
  • Listen to radio or TV for public announcements for the “all-clear” signal.

* If you live in an apartment building or in close proximity to your neighbors, it may be beneficial to work together during an emergency to ensure everyone is safe. Share your plan and communicate in advance to better prepare yourself and your neighbors for potential threats.*

If you are in your car when you observe signs of potential chemical or biological hazards that could affect air quality, follow these steps:
  • If you are unable to get home quickly, pull over to the side of the road, and avoid areas with prolonged sun exposure—bridges and shady spots are better.
  • Close all windows and vents.
  • Turn off your engine.
  • Seal off heating/air conditioning vents with duct tape if possible.
  • Listen to the radio for further updates.
  • Stay where you are until you are told it is safe to continue driving.

If you are an educator or administrator at a school, follow these important steps to ensuring the safety of all children present: 
  • Activate the school’s emergency plan.
  • Select an interior room, above the ground level with the fewest windows or vents.
  • Use duct tape and plastic sheeting to cover windows or cracks. Place a damp towel underneath the door as well.
  • If you can, contact the parents of students.
  • Write down and track the names of everyone in your sheltering room.

If you follow these important steps to sheltering-in-place in the event of a disaster, then you are greatly increasing your chances for surviving from any location—whether it is from your home, workplace, school or even your vehicle.

When she finished going over her cases, she reached for the remote to turn on the TV. As soon as the screen came alive, she could hear the blaring sound of the Emergency Alert System coming from the TV and quickly checked the screen for the warning… THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED A TORNADO WARNING… While details about the warning scrolled across the screen, she saw her two children race down the stairs with pillows, blankets and a flashlight in hand—ready to take shelter immediately. She had taught them well.

She grabbed her cell phone, the battery-operated radio and their emergency supply kit and headed towards the basement with the children. As they made their way down the stairs, she flashed back to her client’s file and how his supervisor had sheltered-in-place for a potential chemical/biological hazard… What are the next steps to sheltering-in-place for severe weather—such as tornadoes or wind storms?

Sheltering-in-place during severe weather is essential, especially when there is the potential for high winds and dangerous debris. Keep in mind these helpful steps to safety:
  • Move people and pets indoors immediately and go to your pre-designated shelter location. Underground shelters and basements are best, but if you do not have one—go to the lowest level and choose a small interior room with no windows, such as a closet or bathroom. Mobile home residents should seek shelter elsewhere!
  • Crouch under a heavy piece of furniture. Cover yourself with blankets/pillows or mattress and protect your head and neck with your arms.
  • Turn on the radio or television in order to hear any Emergency Alert System messages and wait for further instructions.
  • Stay inside until you are told that the danger has passed.

Recently, researchers have developed “Safe Room” design plans, which can be used in above ground shelters—like single-story homes or for those with disabilities impairing them from going down stairs. Shelters built below ground level provide the greatest protection, but above ground shelters can also save lives. To protect its occupants, a Safe Room must be able to withstand the forces exerted by high winds, even if the rest of the house is severely damaged or destroyed.
Safe rooms prevent wind-borne debris from reaching
its occupants inside.
  • The shelter must be adequately anchored to resist overturning and uplift.
  • The walls, ceiling and door of the shelter must withstand wind pressure and resist penetration by wind-borne debris.
  • The connections between all parts of the shelter must be strong enough to resist the wind forces without failing.
  • If sections of either interior or exterior house walls are used as walls of the Safe Room, they must be separated from the structure of the house so that damage to the house will not cause damage to the shelter.


As the worst of the storm had passed over, the young volunteer held her children close. She was overwhelmed with emotion as she thought about how many times in the past year she had dealt with terrifying situations and how the Red Cross had been in her life—always providing for her well-being, as well as the welfare of others in her community. With the knowledge she had shared with her friends, family members and neighbors about how to be ready for when disasters strike, she was able to help them better prepare for emergencies and educate them on how to be resilient in the face of adversity.

Do your part and get involved with your local Red Cross today. Together, we can provide steadfast hope and swift aid to all those in need! 

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