In January 2013, a Florida chemical plant experienced a hazardous chemical release. As a result, a loud area warning horn reverberated throughout the community, indicating that a release had occurred. The prevailing winds put homes and schools in the path of the vapor plume. The surrounding schools ordered a shelter-in-place and response procedures were initiated. “When they hear that horn, they (the schools) go into shelter mode. We then verify what has taken place,” said Santa Rosa County Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick.
Evacuation and Sheltering-in-Place are the primary protective actions used to remove personnel from hazards. While employee evacuation is a typical warranted reaction for an emergency response, it may not be the best option if reaction time is limited or during a hazardous chemical release. Weather-related emergencies or incidents involving chemical, biological, and radiological releases may result in a shelter in place order. Often times during a release or extreme weather, employees are safer to remain indoors rather than attempt to evacuate the area.
It is important to determine the characteristics of a release and/or the current meteorological conditions to determine if the shelter-in-place procedures should be activated. Site-specific criteria, such as building characteristics and shelter-in-place vulnerabilities should be identified and mitigated, if possible. The preparedness process should predetermine shelter-in-place criteria, procedures, assembly points, and routes. However, an Incident Commander should determine if personnel should shelter-in-place or evacuate based on facility circumstances and/or hazardous materials involved.
Just as with an evacuation order, a shelter-in-place activation and implementation is not an instantaneous process. Sheltering-in-place requires time, employee compliance, training, and exercising. Additionally, buildings selected as the shelters must be able to withstand meteorological conditions, such as a tornado, and/or hazardous fumes infiltration.
The following are general shelter-in-place procedures; however, facilities should institute site-specific measures according to operations, facility structure(s), geographical vulnerabilities, threats and/or hazards.
- Close the facility to incoming personnel and provide shelter for those visitors at the site.
- Account for employees within the shelter.
- Shut and lock all windows and doors.
- Shut down, seal and/or disable systems that automatically conduct air exchange including all heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems in all buildings.
- Limit egress to one door or area of the building.
- Tape all doorways to minimize airflow.
- Instruct occupants to gather in the center of a room with minimal ventilation, away from doors and windows.
- If there is danger of glass breaking from explosion or extreme weather, close the window shades, blinds, or curtains to minimize potential impacts to bystanders.
- Maintain contact with emergency contacts and have the phone available if you need to report a life-threatening condition. Be sure to have a hard-wired telephone in the room(s) you select. Cellular telephone equipment may be overwhelmed or damaged during an emergency.
- Gather essential disaster supplies, such as nonperishable food, bottled water, battery-powered radios, first-aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, duct tape, plastic sheeting, and plastic garbage bags if it is determined that the shelter-in-place order will exist for an extended duration.
- Listen to the radio, watch television, or use the Internet for further instructions from local officials/emergency response team or until you are told all is safe or to evacuate by the Incident Commander. Local officials may call for evacuation in specific areas at greatest risk in your community.
- Contact employees who are absent to alert them of the shelter-in-place status.
- If possible have employees, customers, clients, and visitors to call their emergency contact to let them know where they are and that they are safe.
- Communicate when the all-clear message is received.
An Emergency Response Team can be responsible for keeping sheltered employees informed of the situation as it unfolds. Typically, emergencies that require sheltering-in-place will not last more than three to five hours. However, managers may wish to keep extra water and small amounts of non-perishable food on hand in the event the emergency goes beyond 12 hours.
For tips and best practices on designing a crisis management program, download Best Practices for Crisis Management.