By James D. Lee
When is sheltering-in-place preferable to evacuation, and how should you go about it?
In 2005, as Hurricane Rita was bearing down on Houston, few people were taking any chances. The recent experience of what Katrina had done to New Orleans was fresh in their minds. As a result, hundreds of thousands of families hastily packed and left home, heeding the city’s order to evacuate inland, away from the storm’s path.
Not surprisingly, highways became clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, gas stations were overwhelmed, and many who had not had a chance to fill their tanks before the evacuation order was given became concerned that they did not have enough fuel to reach safety.
Several employees of one major company and their families decided that rather than risk a problematic evacuation, a safer solution was to turn around and head to their corporate campus in Houston to weather the storm. They had that option because only a few months earlier their company had implemented a comprehensive shelter-in-place (SIP) program.
Many of the employees had participated in the planning for the program as sheltering needs were analyzed, safe shelter areas were designated, supplies were stocked, and training was conducted on each floor, in each building, and in each department. All of the employees had received awareness training, and several in each department had received more extensive training as shelter wardens or shelter team members.
While the company’s shelter-in-place planning had not anticipated that some employees might return with their families hours after the campus had been evacuated, the program was fully capable of supporting the situation. The employees and their families were welcomed by remaining security staff, directed to safe areas, and provided with needed supplies.
This was the first major test of the shelter-in-place program, and the results were gratifying. The company’s employees had shown confidence in the program, and the program had worked.
After facilitating the development and implementation of SIP plans at over 100 facilities in over a dozen countries, we have learned that each aspect of facility-level SIP planning must take into account employee reaction and behavior. That can only be achieved through employee participation.
This approach requires more time, effort, and resources than simply having management sit around a table and work up a plan. But employee participation greatly reduces the risk that the SIP plan will fall apart upon execution due to unanticipated behavior.
Levels of Planning
It is important to make a distinction between facility-level SIP planning and shelter-level SIP planning. Employees are the ones to execute the shelter level of the SIP plan, so their participation in that phase is essential, but we have found that employee involvement in shelter-level SIP planning can benefit facility-level SIP planning as well. Let’s look at what each level entails.
Facility-level plans. The facility level of the SIP plan is developed by facility emergency operations staff, who are addressing actions and procedures that further the safety of the facility as a whole. Components of the SIP plan include the following.
Risk assessment. To begin the facility-level of the SIP planning process, the planner determines the hazards and threats that may require the facility to shelter in place. Once identified, these risks will determine the appropriate strategy for the SIP program.
The planner may judge that the risks may require only a short-term lockdown capability, a more robust program that provides structural sheltering during extreme weather events, or full environmental sheltering against airborne hazards.
The chosen strategy will dictate the extent to which the program must provide for emergency operation of warning systems, the HVAC system, elevators, utilities, use of internal barriers throughout the facility, and operation of other key systems.
Shelter locations. Based on this risk assessment, the facility-level SIP planner determines the number and location of shelters that will be needed. This may range from a few collective shelters in common areas, such as cafeterias, to distributed shelters on each floor. As a general rule of thumb, the greater the risk that a threat or hazard can enter the facility, whether it be a gunman or an airborne chemical, the more important it is that employees be required to move as little as possible to reach their shelter area. Movement from floor to floor increases the risk that employees will come into contact with a migrating internal hazard.
The planner should also consider the possibility that a shelter within the facility may be compromised at some point. The plan should, therefore, include provisions for relocating people to backup shelters as needed.
Interim needs. The probable length of time that a facility may be isolated from emergency services during a SIP emergency must also be assessed. During a large scale event, for example, public assistance may be delayed as emergency assets are directed to locations where they are most needed. If the risk assessment indicates that extended sheltering may be required, then probable interim emergency medical needs must be considered and addressed.
At a minimum, many companies have placed automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) on each floor. Others have augmented their medical staff based on their risk assessment. Companies are also reaching out to members of the employee population who have additional medical or emergency services skills and enlisting them to provide support during an extended emergency.
Release policies. Facility-level SIP planning must also address the possibility that some employees will insist on leaving the facility. The SIP planner’s first instinct may be to hold individuals in the facility against their will for their own safety, but this may not be possible.
Consider that it may take more than one person to restrain an agitated or panicking individual who is intent on leaving. This may result in injury to either the individuals or those attempting to restrain them. Also, consider that there may be several people who insist on leaving, that they may choose a route that bypasses security, and that their departure can potentially allow an airborne hazard to backwash into the facility.
We’ve concluded that it is better to plan for a controlled means to release people who may insist on leaving the facility. Ironically, knowing that they may be allowed to leave the facility at their own risk during a shelter-in-place event alleviates a significant amount of employee anxiety, and actually reduces the number of people who insist on leaving. People under stress are more cooperative if they don’t feel like captives.
Controlled exit routes, if used, should be selected based on the capability to prevent the backflow of an airborne hazard during the departure of personnel. Controlled entry routes for employees caught outside should also be planned, with the same contamination issues addressed.
Employees entering the facility who may have been exposed to a contaminating hazard can be directed to a separate shelter where their medical condition can be observed. In that way, the shelter operator makes sure that they are not transferring contamination to other people when admitting late arrivals. Ideally, if the risk of a contaminating hazard exists, the facility will have the ability to decontaminate and temporarily clothe exposed employees.
Shelter-level plans. Once the facility-level SIP strategy has been developed, it’s time to develop the shelter-level plans. The shelter level of the SIP plan describes actions and procedures taken to secure employees in shelters, manage the shelters, and meet the various needs of employees while keeping them safe during an emergency.
Baseline procedures for the shelter-level plans would cover issues such as how the shelter-in-place alert will be communicated, who is responsible for SIP management on the floor or in the business unit, how people will proceed to their shelters, and what actions they should take once they arrive. Availability of supplies, including food, water, and blankets, should be addressed in this level of the planning, as should access to restrooms, telephones, and other utilities.
Communications. The most important aspect of the shelter-level plan, aside from the physical safety of employees, is communications. During SIP emergencies, it is critical that communications be maintained between the facility emergency operations center (EOC) and each individual shelter.
Whether this is accomplished by general announcement or by direct communication with each shelter, it is important that the EOC communicate with the shelters once per half hour at a minimum. Longer intervals will result in escalating anxiety among sheltered employees.
Even if there is no change in the situation, an announcement every half hour will serve to reassure employees that they are not isolated, that the company is concerned about their well-being, and that someone is actively working to resolve the emergency.
Family contacts. It is also important to preserve the ability of employees to communicate with their families if possible. Stress levels within the shelters will be greatly reduced if employees can both verify that their family members are safe and reassure those loved ones that they themselves are safe.
Assignments. The next step is to assign volunteers from the work force. The positions to be filled include shelter wardens, deputy shelter wardens, and shelter team members. These people will generally operate in a manner similar to their counterparts on fire-safety teams and are often the same individuals. The major difference during SIP emergencies is that employees assigned to these positions may have to perform their duties over an extended period of time.
SIP training of the employee population should be accomplished on two tiers. In the first tier, every employee should receive basic SIP informational training and participate in SIP drills.
In the informational training, staff should learn how to recognize and respond to a SIP warning, whose direction they should follow, where they should go to shelter, what they will do while sheltering, and what supplies and services will be available to them while in the shelter. This part of first-tier training can be conducted in the form of a briefing or by electronic means over the Internet. Whatever means is chosen, a record of the training should be produced and maintained.
The second part of first-tier training is drills. Shelter wardens, their deputies, and their teams should be responsible for conducting first-tier SIP drills for the employees who are assigned to their shelters. These drills should be conducted under the supervision of the facility-level SIP planner.
There may also be concerned or interested employees who are not assigned SIP duties. While all employees will participate in the drills, some of these employees may want to know more about the program.
The second tier of the employee training should be open to everyone upon request. This approach ensures that the employee population continues to feel that nothing is being concealed from them. Invariably, fewer people will attend than actually express an interest in the program. For many workers, simply knowing that the second-tier training is open to them serves as adequate reassurance.
In the second tier of training, shelter wardens, deputy shelter wardens, and shelter team members should receive more extensive training. The training of shelter wardens, their deputies, and their teams should be conducted in a seminar fashion, with class sizes limited to between 20 and 24 people. As with the leaders of business units, they should be fully briefed on all aspects of the facility-level SIP plan and the generic shelter-level plan.
These employees should also be encouraged to ask questions and provide suggestions about how to improve the plans throughout. It is important to remember that some of the people you are training are more intimately familiar with the systems in their areas of responsibility than you will be. If there are any weak points in the facility-level plan or the generic shelter-level plan from the perspective of those employees with floor or business unit expertise, they will help you identify it and might also help you develop a more workable solution to problems you have encountered.
Second-tier training sessions should be open-ended to ensure that all aspects of the program are properly discussed and understood. You should plan to spend four hours per session, but most sessions will last only between two-and-a-half to three hours. Following second-tier training, shelter wardens should be charged with adapting the generic shelter-level plan to their specific shelter. The adapted plans gets submitted to the facility-level SIP planner for review and approval. Shelter wardens, their deputies, and their teams should also be responsible for conducting first-tier SIP drills for employees who are assigned to their shelters. These drills should be conducted under the supervision of the facility-level SIP planner.
The most disturbing thing for most people during a SIP emergency is the feeling that they are personally powerless and dependent on others for their safety. Over the last few years, a number of supplemental technologies that can help to alleviate this feeling have become more widely available. They may make sense for certain companies.
For example, individual protective items restore to employees the sense that they have some personal control over their situation. Effective smoke escape masks and goggles are available for under $50; they have shelf lives of up to five years. Employees at companies that have issued such equipment frequently cite their mask as tangible evidence that their company cares about them personally and is actively working to keep them safe in an emergency response situation.
Also, a new generation of air purifiers is now hitting the commercial market. University testing indicates that some systems can rapidly destroy (not simply filter) avian flu and other biological contaminants and also eliminate harmful gases. These systems come in both portable and duct-mounted configurations and have been shown to maintain the quality of the air in shelters over extended periods of occupation.
In the final analysis, however, maintaining employee confidence when they are sheltering in place during an emergency comes down to communication. The interactive training and planning process serves to stimulate two-way communication and results in more comprehensive plans that actually work. Ultimately, by placing confidence in employees during the development of the plan, a company enhances not only the SIP program but also employee confidence in sheltering in place, and in the company as a whole.
Barriers to Successful Sheltering-in-Place
Sheltering-in-place is not a natural reaction for many people during times of stress. When the fight or flight reflex kicks in, they are reluctant to place their safety in the hands of others.
That natural reaction is reinforced by past events. For example, images of 9-11 remain fresh in people’s minds. They remember that the occupants of the World Trade Center were first told not to evacuate, and those that heeded that advice may not have had time to escape the buildings’ collapse. Employees ask how the planner can be sure that they will be safe in their shelter.
Another factor is the desire to get to loved ones. Employees will have a strong instinct to leave so that they can locate and protect their family and friends.
These are just a few examples of the motivations people may have to leave the shelter, even though they may be placing themselves, and worse, their fellow employees, at risk by doing so. Each of these motivations to leave during a SIP emergency can be very powerful. By involving employees in the planning process, management can reduce the percentage of people who will act on these motivations.
In 2004, a survey of employees in a New York City high rise prior to SIP training revealed that over 60 percent of them intended to leave the building at the first sign of trouble. After SIP training and participation in the shelter-level SIP planning process, the number of employees who stated that they intended to leave was reduced to less than 15 percent, and that percentage has dropped further as employees undergo each round of refresher training.
Shelter-in-place (SIP) plans can help protect employees during various emergencies. To prepare, managers must analyze needs, designate safe shelter areas, stock supplies, and prepare employees.
The facility level of the SIP plan addresses actions and procedures that provide for the safety of the facility as a whole. Based on risk assessment, the planner determines the number and location of shelters, as well as backup sites. Planners should prepare policies for those who insist on leaving the facility. Controlled-exit routes should be selected to prevent backflow of an airborne hazard, and controlled entry routes should be planned for employees caught outside. Shelter-level plans cover issues such as communication of the SIP alert, who is responsible for management in the business unit, and how people will proceed to shelters. Availability of supplies should be addressed, as well as access to restrooms, telephones, and other utilities. During SIP emergencies, communications must be maintained between the facility emergency operations center and each shelter, and employees should be able to communicate with their families if possible.
Employees should receive basic SIP training and participate in drills. Further training must be provided for shelter supervisors and shelter wardens, their deputies, and their teams.
Major James D. Lee, P.E., ret., is a 1982 graduate of West Point and served in the Army’s Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense Corps. He has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia and has served on the faculty at West Point. Since 1998 he has consulted in the private sector, specializing in CBRN vulnerability reduction.