The information in this story contains general information about sheltering in place. It is not specific to the shelter-in-place orders issued in parts of California as part of the COVID-19 response. Please check with your local government (city, county, etc.) to find out if a shelter in place order is in place where you live and what actions you should or should not take.

Emergency authorities may notify the public of an emergency action called a “shelter in place” when it is safer for people to stay in their homes, workplaces, or alternate locations rather than evacuate or move freely outside. A shelter in place may be enacted during chemical, biological, or radiological releases, or during wildfires, tornadoes, outbreaks of violence, or other such emergencies. Sheltering in place can reduce your exposure to harmful contaminants and other hazards. Be aware of proper shelter in place procedures by following the suggestions below.

Familiarize yourself with the community warning systems used by local emergency authorities by contacting your local Office of Emergency Services. Communication methods for emergency announcements and instructions may include:

  • Sirens or horns. (These systems are usually tested on a regular basis, so learn the difference between test sounds and actual emergency notifications).
  • Local telephone lines (also called reverse 9-1-1).
  • Electronic notification systems to text and/or email messages.
  • Media outlets like radio and television to make announcements.

Monitor these news sources for instructions on the type of emergency, which sheltering in place steps to take, and the expected duration of the event. Some scenarios may call for you to go inside and stay indoors. Special precautions may be needed for airborne contaminants, potential explosions in the area, or criminal activities.

Once a shelter in place is activated, enter the building and lock all doors and windows. This secures the building and also creates a tighter seal for windows and doors. In a business setting, post signs at the main entrances stating that a shelter in place is active and the building is closed.

Assign people to monitor the entrances and exits. If clients and coworkers wish to leave, advise them that it is safer to stay, but if they insist—allow them to leave. If the emergency is not due to criminal activity, allow entry to people seeking safety inside—but minimize the time that the door is open.

In the event airborne contaminants are released, you may be advised to shut off the building’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system via the building’s emergency stop button. In the event this option isn’t available, get training on how to shut the HVAC off yourself or know the procedures for contacting building engineering to do so onsite, or from a remote location.

You may also hear instructions to seal windows, doors, and vents with plastic sheeting. Make sure that you have a supply of thick plastic, duct tape, scissors, and stepladders on hand. You can also save time before the emergency by pre-cutting and labeling plastic to fit on doors, windows, and vents.

Write down the emergency procedures that are appropriate for your location.

  • Include contact phone numbers for critical management and response team members.
  • Gather your emergency supplies and keep them up to date.
  • Train for these emergency procedures through discussion, scenarios, and actual drills.

A shelter in place can last for several hours or more, so keep food, water, toilet, and medical supplies to serve the number of people that you could expect in the building.

Continue monitoring the event and do not exit the building until authorities have called an end to the incident, or “all clear.”

As with any emergency, preparation ahead of time can help you make higher quality decisions when the time comes to react.

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The above evaluations and/or recommendations are for general guidance only and should not be relied upon for medical advice or legal compliance purposes. They are based solely on the information provided to us and relate only to those conditions specifically discussed. We do not make any warranty, expressed or implied, that your workplace is safe or healthful or that it complies with all laws, regulations or standards.

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