What Is Shelter in Place: A Comprehensive Guide

Aug 10, 2020

Practice is the best teacher, and the COVID-19 pandemic made sure everyone was acquainted with the definition of the lockdown and its steps. There's another type of lockdown, though, that's less known yet equally important. It's called 'shelter in place,' and you should know how it works to ensure your safety in all emergency situations.

What Is Shelter in Place?

A call to "shelter in place" happens when a severe emergency takes place.

To "shelter in place" means find shelter in the building you're in. You're not meant to find another place to shelter, as leaving the building is considered dangerous. Emergencies that may call for a shelter in place initiative include weather alerts, pandemics, environmental hazards, and active shooter situations.

If you're outdoors during a shelter in place call, you need to get to safety as fast as possible.

Shelter in place order is issued to keep people safe indoors while an emergency event takes place. The initiative hopes to reduce stress and ensure everyone's safety where they are.

Shelter in Place: Steps to Take

Depending on the type of emergency, the shelter in place steps differ.

First, no matter what the emergency, make sure nobody leaves the building. Tell visitors to stay inside, and instruct them on the shelter in place process.

  • If you're experiencing a natural disaster or a radioactive event, head to the lowest level of the building—underground, if possible. 
  • If there's a biological or chemical disaster, go to the highest floor and ideally find a room without windows. 
  • If there's a pandemic, stay at home (or inside wherever you are until you're allowed out) and ration your supplies.
  • If you're in the office building, you'll likely have a shelter in place plan in order. This may include shutting off HVAC systems and fans, blocking windows, and contacting emergency services. There may be a designated room or floor everyone has to get to.
  • If you're in a mobile workspace, you likely have to move to a more stable, nearby building.

Whatever the situation, follow the shelter in place rules diligently. Don't try and be a hero, and don't try and go against the rules. Yours and others' safety is on the line.

Shelter in Place Scenarios: A Closer Look

There are many different reasons for a shelter in place order, and each of these requires specific safety measures. Let's take a look at each in more detail.


If there's a hurricane warning, the safest way to shelter in place is by heading to the most interior of the building. Ideally, find a room without windows as the glass is likely to break. Bathrooms or closets are often the best choices.


For a tornado, you'll want to go to the lowest point of the building, ideally a room with no windows. Under a stairwell is a safe place, and closets and bathrooms are also good choices, similar to a hurricane. Get as low as you can, cover your head with your hands, and ball up if the tornado approaches.


If you're at home when the pandemic is announced, you need to stay there. If you're not at home, go to your home immediately. Ration your food and supplies, and avoid leaving your home until it's safe to do so.

Staying home is one of the most effective ways to battle a pandemic. We can look at New York as an example. When put under lockdown in April, cases dropped dramatically.

Keep a battery-operated radio or TV closeby for updates on the pandemic. That way, you'll know when you can get supplies, and the status of the pandemic.


You usually should not shelter in place during a wildfire unless local authorities say it's safe to do so. Often, evacuation is necessary. Always follow what the officials are telling you.

If you are told to shelter in place, go to a low point in the home. A bathroom is often a safe spot, and you can even fill the tub with water just in case the fire gets into your home. Emerging yourself in the water will help protect you from burns while emergency services arrive.

Hostage Situations

One of the scariest things any business or individual can go through is a hostage situation. Unfortunately, they're unpredictable and can happen at any time. Workplace violence is rising, and everyone must know how to act in this case. 

Every business must have a procedure and steps prepared for the possibility of a hostage situation. However, not all businesses do. They believe preparing for these situations will cause stress for their employees. The reality is, employees will be much more stressed if it happens, and nobody knows how to respond, and emotions are more likely to get in the way.

As the manager of a business, you should always have an EAP (Emergency Action Preparedness plan) and train your employees on it. Here are seven tips to follow in the case of a hostage situation:

  1. Don't try to argue with the shooter or talk them out of it.
  2. Don't talk amongst yourselves.
  3. Take a few breaths, prepare yourself for the long-haul, practice patience.
  4. Keep your hands on your head; sit down.
  5. Don't make risky suggestions/plans.
  6. No sudden movements.
  7. Cooperate when help arrives, don't resist if you're being handcuffed —the authorities know what they're doing and have their reasons.

Active Shooter Situation

An active shooter situation can happen at any business, including schools. Healthcare services are the most likely to experience workplace assault.

Like hostage situations, every business should have a plan for dealing with them. A hostage situation even has the possibility of becoming an active shooter situation. Here are some tips for dealing with an active shooter situation:

  1. If you can do so safely (you're near a door, fire escape) run and escape. Leave your things behind, help others if you can, and get help. Go as fast as you can.
  2. If you can't escape, hide. Stay as quiet as you can, and make no sudden movements. Lock the door, turn off the lights, try to call or text the police.
  3. If the shooter finds you, fight -- don't give in. Find a nearby weapon, and try to get the shooter on the ground. Take their weapon if you have the opportunity. Don't go easy on them.

You can take an active shooter class to get better prepared. You can also look for the signs of a disgruntled employee and take steps to prevent them from doing anything drastic.

If you know an openly aggressive employee, owns a weapon, tends to act violently, or has violent fantasies, take note. Talk to them about it, and professionally offer your help. If you worry about them and your other employees, report this employee to your manager and have them deal with it.

Shelter in Place Plan Checklist

Although every shelter in place plan is handled differently, there are some general things you need to do in any type of shelter-in-place situation. Here is a list of actions to familiarize yourself with just in case:

  • Know the safest rooms in your business/home (windowless, lockable door, a low-level floor for specific events, high floor for others).
  • Prepare a shelter in place kit, know where it's kept.
  • Don't leave the building or shelter room (unless you can safely escape in a shooter/hostage situation).
  • Don't panic.
  • Call for help as soon as you can do so safely in the case of a shooter/hostage situation.
  • Cover HVAC, turn off fans, close windows in the case of a chemical/weather event.
  • Follow the EAP diligently, follow the guidance of the person in charge, don't try to be a hero.

If you follow all these steps, you'll be much safer in the instance of a shelter in place scenario.

Preparing a Shelter in Place Kit

A shelter in place kit is a necessity for every workplace.

When you're told to shelter in place, you never know how long that order might last. Considering this, the contents of a shelter in place kit should be long-lasting and plentiful. Let's see what a typical shelter in place kit might look like:

  • Water
  • Food (dehydrated, cans, long-lasting products)
  • Portable cooking device (hot plate, stove) and fuel if needed
  • Firestarter
  • Fully packed first aid kit
  • Emergency radio
  • Crank flashlight, lantern
  • Landline phone if possible
  • Sleeping bags
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Garbage bags
  • Generator
  • Toolkit
  • Knife/multi-tool
  • N95 respirators

The more gear you have on-hand, the more prepared you'll be. For shelter in place at work scenarios, there are a lot of employees to take care of. The supplies almost certainly won't last long, so the more you have, the better.

Learning to Shelter in Place: A Necessity

A shelter in place initiative can happen at any time, at any location. If you're asking, "What is shelter in place?" when the call comes in, you could be endangering yourself and others. Familiarize yourself with the shelter in place procedures detailed above to be as prepared for an emergency situation.