Being Prepared: How to Shelter in Place at Work

Mar 26, 2019

This article covers the definition of a commonly confused term "shelter in place", and how to respond to this situation.

Shelter in place at work graphic

What does shelter in place really mean?

In certain emergency situations, including a severe weather alert, a pandemic, an environmental hazard (e.g., chemical release), or a local emergency (e.g., active shooter), the public is told to “shelter-in-place.” 

The purpose of sheltering in place is to keep people safe while indoors during an emergency event. However, the phrase may be confusing to someone who is not well-versed in disaster preparedness, interpreting the instruction as staying where you currently are. That’s precisely the opposite of what you need to do.   


Different threats require slightly different sheltering recommendations.  

The following steps describe how to effectively take shelter in place in your office, or at home, and ensure everyone is safe during a crisis.   

  • If there are any visitors in your office, make sure that they stay in your building and are instructed on shelter-in-place protocols for your office.  
  • Gather everyone in the designated shelter-in-place area, secured and with locks on the doors.  
  1. In a natural disaster or radiological release, the safest location is the room on the lowest level, or underground, and in the interior-most part of the building.  
  2. In the event of a chemical or biological disaster, the area should be an interior, windowless room on the highest floor of the building. Most hazardous agents are heavy enough to slowly settle to the ground. 
  3. In the situation of a pandemic, you’ll want to remain at home and only leave for essential items (food, supplies). If you do find yourself in a busy area, you’ll want to practice social distancing to give yourself the best chance of not becoming infected.
  • If your office is in a mobile unit, a plan must be developed in advance specifying a nearby building to seek shelter in. Strong winds will turn over a trailer or a mobile unit, making it an unsafe location during many types of disasters.  
  • Shut off all HVAC systems and fans. If there is no other room other than the one with windows, cover or block them.  
  • Encourage everyone to reach out to their emergency contact and let them know of their location.  
  • Have essential emergency kit accessible.  

In any emergency situation, immediate and clear communication can provide a lifeline. Consider our Crisis Communication checklist as a part of your strategy.

Additional safety measures

It is beneficial to have a land-line phone along with a battery-operated radio and television in this safe room for efficient and reliable communication, as cellular towers may get overloaded.  

While using an emergency notification system in your company to alert employees to any threats in essential, consider subscribing to your local police department or local county government’s Reverse 9-1-1 system to get warnings about local threats in your area. To find this information online, search the phrase “emergency alert system” including your county and state.  

Exercising practice drills annually will help everyone in your workplace understand how to respond to a shelter-in-place situation, preventing any mistakes. Take your knowledge home to make sure that your family stays safe should a disaster occur.

Shelter-in-place can be in response to a pandemic (ex: COVID-19). To learn more about preparing for a pandemic, download our Pandemic Tabletop Exercise.

And to learn more about preparing for an active shooter, download our Active Shooter Tabletop Exercise.


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