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How to Stay Safe During an Emergency and Shelter-in-Place

An event that requires shelter-in-place may happen quickly, without much warning, so it’s important to know the emergency procedures ahead of time.

Shelter-in-Place sign.

Shelter-in-place means finding a safe location indoors and staying there until it is safe to leave, or you must evacuate. Generally, shelter-in-place is appropriate when conditions outside are unsafe, and a higher degree of protection is available inside.

A shelter-in-place order may be given by local authorities, or conditions may be so apparent that you make your own decision to stay safe indoors. The basic concept of shelter-in-place is to put barriers between yourself and the danger, while maintaining awareness, communications, and safety.

Shelter-in-place may be required for many different reasons, including emergencies like:

Criminal Activityactive shooter, persons with weapons, or threatening behavior

Severe Weathertornado, hail, winter storm, flooding, or hurricane

Dangerous Debris Conditionsafter an earthquake, or other destructive event

Hazardous Contaminants Releasechemical, biological, or radiological

During extended periods of shelter-in-place you will have to manage food, water, hygiene, and first aid supplies. Planning ahead with an emergency kit is important.

Tornado shelter sign outside of a Men's restroom.

Where you choose to shelter-in-place should safely and effectively shield you from the hazard. For most situations that require shelter-in-place, you should find an interior room that doesn’t have windows or can be sealed off.

Large storage closets, utility rooms, break rooms, copy rooms, conference rooms, and bathrooms without exterior windows may work well as shelter areas. Some dangers may require careful consideration to choose the best interior shelter-in-place location.

ACTIVE SHOOTER Get to a room you can barricade with heavy furniture, lock all the doors and windows, turn the lights off, silence cell phones, stay low and out of sight.

TORNADO WARNING Move to the basement or to the interior of the building, away from windows and glass. Do not seek shelter in a large room like a gym or auditorium.

SEVERE WEATHER Put as many walls between you and the outdoors as possible, and head to the lowest floor, ideally the basement if there is one.

CHEMICAL RELEASE In some instances, it is better to shelter in a room above ground level, because some chemicals are heavier than air and may seep below ground.

RADIOACTIVE RELEASE Find a centrally located room with no windows or go to the basement. For any hazardous material release, seal the room to stop outside air from coming in.

Red emergency light on a red background.

If the situation allows, and it is safe to do so, evacuation away from the hazardous environment is preferred. Shelter-in-place should be used when it is not safe to leave your current location. Use the information you have along with common sense to assess the situation and then decide if there is an immediate danger. In any emergency, local authorities may or may not immediately be able to provide information on what is happening and what you should do.

Individuals cannot be forced to shelter-in-place. Attempt to maximize cooperation among the group you are with to promote making safe decisions. Act in a calm and deliberate manner.

If you know or believe there is reason to seal off a room to stay safe from air contaminants, there are specific actions you can take to prevent the outside air from coming inside. Get inside, lock doors and windows. Turn off anything that moves air, like fans and air conditioners. Seal windows, doors, and air vents with thick plastic sheeting and duct tape.

Storm shelter sign on a brown building.

Here is the basic shelter-in-place procedure. Because every emergency situation is different, you will make changes depending on the danger that is outside:

First, if you are inside, stay where you are. If you have time, collect emergency supplies like bottled water, a first aid kit, flashlights, and non-perishable food. If you are outdoors, get to the closest building quickly or follow instructions from emergency personnel in the area.

If you have information that others may not have heard, let them know what is going on and encourage them to shelter-in-place also. Unless there is an imminent threat, call or text your emergency contact to let them know where you are and that you are safe.

Once indoors, move to the safest area possible, which is likely to be a small, interior room away from windows, that can be locked or sealed off, if necessary. Choose room(s) that have adequate space for everyone to be able to sit. Avoid overcrowding by selecting several rooms if necessary.

Take additional emergency actions that are specific to the hazard, which might be barricading the door, closing vents, sealing the room, using large furniture for protection, etc. Remain calm, and if possible, attempt to stay updated on the emergency situation.

Shelter-in-place until the danger has passed, the conditions warrant an immediate evacuation, or emergency personnel give additional directions. You may need to take extreme care when exiting your shelter location. Be aware of new hazards created during the emergency.

A seek shelter sign outdoors with bad weather in the background.

If you are driving, or in your vehicle, and an order is given to shelter-in-place, or you believe it is the safest thing to do with the information you have, follow these safety precautions:

If you are very near to your workplace, your home, or a public building, go there immediately and get inside. If you can’t get indoors quickly and safely and you have access to the news, listen to officials to help you decide if you should keep driving to get away from the danger, or make the decision to pull over for safety.

If you do stop your vehicle, pull over to the safest place possible and turn off the engine. If it is warm outside, stop under a bridge or in a shady spot. Stay where you are and pay attention to the news (if possible) to get updates and instructions.

If you are driving, do not try to outrun a tornado. If flying debris is encountered while in a vehicle, and you are unable to make it to a safe shelter, there are two options. You can stay in the vehicle with the seat belt on, keep your head below the windows, and cover your head and neck with your hands or a blanket. Alternatively, if there is an area which is noticeably lower than the roadway, like a ditch or a ravine, lie in that area and cover your head with your hands.

View from inside a car driving down a road with a tornado in sight in the distance.

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