In a disaster, the best thing to do is get outside as quickly as possible...right?
Not necessarily. Depending on the nature of the disaster at hand, sometimes the best thing to do is hole up where you are, a procedure known as "sheltering-in-place." Airborne contaminants, such as from chemical or radiological accidents, can seep into your home or your car, but if you're prepared, you can keep them from getting all the way to you.
Download our tip-sheet Shelter-In-Place [PDF, 160Kb] for a printable checklist of items you'll need as well as step-by-step instructions. This is not an instant procedure - it takes pre-planning and forethought. Be ready before you need to act.
Designate a room
Choose a room in your home where your entire family can stay together comfortably for several hours, preferably one with as few doors, windows, and vents as possible. A master bedroom with an attached bathroom is ideal so that you have access to a toilet. Since many contaminants are heavier than air, upstairs is better than downstairs if possible, and never use a basement or other underground room for this purpose.
Using a tape measure, measure every single door, window, vent (whether ceiling, wall, or floor-mounted), light switch plate, electrical outlet cover, and cable and phone outlet in your designated room(s). Don't forget about the fireplace if your room has one. For master suites, it is not necessary to measure the door between the bedroom and the bathroom. Keep written track of each of these measurements, adding four inches to each direction (for example, 20"x32" becomes 24"x36").
Create your barriers
You will need the following supplies to create your barriers:
• 2-4mm thick plastic sheeting
• Duct tape or cloth tape, at least 2" wide (you may need multiple rolls)
• Bath towels (one for each door)
• Permanent marker
• A tote box to store it all in, preferably plastic
If you don't already have a disaster kit or want to have a small, dedicated kit for sheltering-in-place, also get the following items:
• Portable AM/FM radio and extra batteries
• Flashlight and extra batteries
• Non-perishable snacks and pet food (if applicable)
• Water, at least one gallon per person in your household
• Any other special needs items (such as diapers/formula, special medication, etc.)
Using a pair of scissors, cut the plastic sheeting to the enlarged measurements from earlier. Make sure that each piece fits over its intended location, overhanging each side by about two inches, then label it with the marker ("bedroom door," "cable outlet," etc.). Fold up the measured and marked pieces and put them, along with the towels and duct tape, into the tote box. If you purchased seperate emergency supplies, put those in the box as well. Keep the box in an easily accessible location in the designated room.
If local officials advise that you should shelter-in-place, do so quickly. Go inside (don't forget your pets!) and tightly shut and lock every door and window in your home. Turn off any fans and set your thermostat so that the heater/air conditioner will turn off and stay off. Put out any lit fireplaces, and tightly close the dampers. If you have one and want to do so, grab your disaster kit and take it into your safe room (unless you have reason to believe it has been contaminated).
Once in your safe room, close and lock the doors and windows, pull out your shelter kit, and begin matching up the pre-measured pieces to their locations. Tape down the corners first, then tape along the entire edge of each side, leaving no gaps (be generous with the tape). Wet the bath towels and shove them into the cracks under the doors to tightly seal the gap. If you have a phone, television, computer, or lamp plugged in, go ahead and leave it plugged in, but make sure to put the plastic over the plug so the cord comes out the side and tightly seal it off with tape - never make a hole in the plastic for the cord. Non-essential items should be unplugged before sealing off the outlet. Turn on your television, radio, or computer and turn to a local news station for updates. DO NOT break your barriers down until local officials advise you that it is safe to do so.
Remember, sheltering-in-place must be done quickly to be effective, and once you've gotten your barriers up they need to stay up until you're notified that it's safe to take them down. It's natural to want to do so, but DON'T wait for family members to come home (or worse yet go get them - your kids will be safer staying at school), and DON'T let anyone in once your barriers are up.
Once it's safe
When local officials advise you that it's safe to come out, start breaking down your barriers. Remove and discard the tape. Fold up the plastic sheeting and put it back into your kit, washing it off first if desired (easiest way for larger pieces: garden hose and air-drying in the sun). Wash and dry the towels and put them back in your kit. Open up all the doors and windows in your home (dampers too if you have fireplaces) to thoroughly air it out, and turn on your ventilation system to disperse any contaminants that might have gotten inside your home, heater, or air conditioner. Replace any items from your kit that you used (such as snacks or tape), and put your kit away.
If you're in your vehicle: pull over to the side of the road and stop in a safe location. Tightly roll up all the windows, turn off the vents and close them (if possible), and shut off the motor to avoid drawing outside air in through the engine. Breathe through a dampened cloth and listen to the radio for any instructions.
If you're not at home (outside a vehicle): if you're outside, go into the nearest building. If you're inside, stay there. Go to the most protected place you can find, furthest from any windows or doors. Breathe through a dampened cloth and wait for instructions.
Other points to remember
Events that require sheltering-in-place generally don't last long. Air is constantly circulating, and wind will eventually disperse contaminants to non-hazardous levels or even out of the area entirely. That being said, you should shelter where you are - don't go somewhere to shelter unless directed to do so by local officials.
Use your good judgement: if you can see large amounts of debris or particles in the air, you may wish to shelter-in-place even if officials haven't recommended you do so yet.
If your home is damaged (such as from a nearby explosion), you may wish to shut of your utilities before sheltering (don't shut off the gas unless you have a gas leak or a fire). Also do so if officials advise you to shut them off. This is why having a battery-operated radio and flashlight in your shelter kit is important.
For more information, visit the following websites (links will open in a new window):
Shelter-In-Place: Homeland Security News