Advice from the experts: Sheltering in place: What you need to know about staying put during an emergency

Q&A with Darryl J. Madden, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Ready Campaign

Should an emergency or other kind of disaster strike, your local authorities might advise you and your family to “shelter in place.” If this type of instruction were given, would you know what to do? To help you better understand and prepare for this life-saving measure, APHA’s Get Ready campaign sought advice on sheltering in place from Darryl J. Madden, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Ready Campaign.

Darryl MaddenThere’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about sheltering in place. What does sheltering in place mean?

Sheltering in place means finding a very safe place to basically be in a stable environment while a particular emergency or event takes place. There are a variety of places that you can obviously shelter in place — you may be in transit from work to home, or you may be at school. So there are a variety of different places where you may ultimately shelter in place, but we want people to make sure they are in tune to what the shelter-in-place requirements are at their work. If they have school-aged children, they should certainly ask what the shelter-in-place requirement is going to be in the event that something would actually have them activate their emergency action plan. What we would encourage people to do — certainly at home — is to make sure that they have a three-day supply of food and water for each individual as well as for their pets.

What kinds of emergencies would require us to shelter in place?

There are a variety of emergencies that may require people to shelter in place. The ones that normally come to mind would be chemical, biological or radiological events. Normally, people are instructed by emergency managers to get to a very safe place. But there are those that don’t necessarily rise to that level of an emergency. For example, there could be a police event or a hostage situation. One of the things we’re looking at right now are weather events that are happening in some of the southern states that require people to basically shelter in place and shelter at their homes. So there’s a wide range of events that emergency managers may actually instruct individuals to stay home. The main reason for that is that we want people to stay in a safe environment and a very stable environment, and chances (are) that’s either going to be a home, place of work or school.

How will we find out that we’re being told to shelter in place?

Normally, local emergency management usually will make those types of decisions because they are the ones that are closest to the event and they have the most up-to-date information. So normally, that call would come from local emergency managers or local law enforcement or fire officials.

What if you’re in your car, or some other vehicle, when the call to shelter in place is made?

If you’re in a car, a lot depends on where you are. If you are close to home, we obviously encourage you to return home. If you’re at a place you’re familiar with, such as at work or something of that nature, we encourage you to go back to a familiar surrounding. But if you are not, one of the things that we encourage people to do is to try to find a public building. If you can’t find a public building, normally the best place to go is to some type of a retail store.

What if your children are at school when the instruction to shelter in place is given?

One of the things we obviously like people to do is to be prepared. Information is power. The first thing we would say is that prior to an emergency, we would ask individuals to go to their schools, contact an official there and ask them what is their emergency plan, what is their shelter-in-place plan? It doesn’t necessarily just have to be shelter in place, it also can be for evacuations or any type of emergency that may happen. You want to know what the plan is and where your children are going to be. And obviously that changes depending upon the age of children.

One of the things that we also instruct schools to do is that if they engage in a shelter-in-place plan, that they certainly allow children to communicate either via cell phone or through e-mail, if it’s possible, to certainly get messages out to loved ones to let them know that they are safe, because obviously the first thing htat people may want to do is to try to get to the school, thereby putting themselves in jeopardy. So the one thing that we want people to do is to make sure that they utilize whatever communication method may be best suited to them given their particular environment, but certainly to communicate — to let them know that they are safe and that in turn their loved ones should shelter in place as well.

Let’s assume that you are at home when the instruction comes to shelter in place. You mentioned having a three-day supply of water and food. What kinds of food should we stockpile?

Ton-perishable items would be the first thing. But more important than food is water. One thing that we encourage people to do, in that everybody has plastic containers that they’re putting into recycling, when you finish using the initial product, clean them out, fill them with water and store them some place. Once again, normally you figure three days of water for each person, including pets, and that can have the tendency to add up a little bit. But what you can do is prepare now, and as you have these containers, fill them up with water and store them in a safe, dry place. (Editor’s note: For instructions on how to prepare your own water storage containers, visit FEMA’s website.)

What about pets? How would you air them if you were sheltering in place?

It depends on the nature of the emergency. If it’s an event where it doesn’t involve any contamination of the air, certainly go outside and air your pet. But in the event that it’s something where it may be a danger to you or your pet, obviously it’s better to remain indoors.

What type of room in your home or apartment would be best for sheltering in place?

Sheltering in place depends on the nature of the event. If it’s some type of chemical event…the interior of the house is always best. But if it’s a chemical event, you want to not necessarily be in the basement because sometimes contaminants can come through the ground as well, so normally the best room in the house will be determined by the emergency manager. Generally, it’s a room within the center of the dwelling that does not have any windows.

Would we be advised to stockpile duct tape as well, to seal cracks around the door?

That is certainly an option. And the other thing I would also bring to your attention is that people often forget to turn off the air handler and their air conditioning or heating system…that uses outside air that is brought into the dwelling. So if this type of emergency is called, you want to make sure that you turn that off as well.

Should we also be prepared to evacuate at some point?

Certainly. And the one good thing about having emergency stores on hand is that you can take those with you, and they would help you on the road as well. So once again, whether you’re in the process of sheltering in place or if the call comes later to evacuate, remember: Sometimes you may shelter in place first, and then there may be a phased evacuation. Once again, if you have the supplies on hand, you are much better ahead of the game.

So what would be some common mistakes that people make when it comes to sheltering in place?

The key here is always to stay informed. The second thing would be to make sure that you’re prepared for the event. One of the things that I encourage people to get is one of the battery-operated, crank-operated radios that is also a flashlight, and the one that I have is also a cell phone charger because...depending upon the nature of the emergency, you may not be able to have access to electricity. So that one device can take you pretty far.

Once again, the key is being prepared for the event. I encourage people to go to There is plenty of material there that would help people prepare for these types of circumstances. In addition to that, you really want to listen to what the local emergency managers are telling you. They are very well informed, they’re getting information from a variety of different sources and believe me, they have the citizen’s best interests at heart. And don’t take it upon yourself. The best thing to do is to listen to what emergency managers are saying and make sure that your first priority is the safety of yourself and your loved ones.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Once again, the time to prepare is now.

— Interview conducted, edited and condensed January 2010 by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA.

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