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Know When and How to Shelter-in-Place for Schools

What Shelter-in-Place Means

One of the instructions you may be given in an emergency where hazardous materials may have been released into the atmosphere is to shelter-in-place. This is a precaution aimed to keep you safe while remaining indoors. (This is not the same things as going to a shelter in case of a storm.) Shelter-in-place means selecting a small, interior room, with no or few windows and taking refuge there. It does not mean sealing off your entire school. If you are told to shelter-in-place, follow the instructions below.


Why You Might Need to Shelter-in-Place

Chemical, biological or radiological contaminants may be released accidentally or intentionally into the environment. Should this occur, information will be provided by local authorities on television and radio stations on how to protect students and staff. Because the information will most likely be provided on television and radio, it is important to keep a TV or radio on, even during the workday. The important thing is for you to follow instructions of local authorities and know what to do if they advise you to shelter-in-place.


How to Shelter-in-Place at School

  • Close the school. Activate the school's emergency plan. Follow reverse evacuation procedures to bring students, faculty and staff indoors.
  • If there are visitors in the building, provide for their safety by asking them to stay – not leave. When authorities provide directions to shelter-in-place, they want everyone to take those steps immediately, where they are, and not drive or walk outdoors.
  • Provide for answering telephone inquiries from concerned parents by having at least one telephone with the school’s listed telephone number available in the room selected to provide shelter for the school secretary, or person designated to answer these calls. This room should also be sealed. There should be a way to communicate among all rooms where people are sheltering-in-place in the school.
  • Ideally, provide for a way to make announcements over the school-wide public address system from the room where the top school official takes shelter.
  • If children have cell phones, allow them to use them to call a parent or guardian to let them know that they have been asked to remain in school until further notice, and that they are safe.
  • If the school has voicemail or an automated attendant, change the recording to indicate that the school is closed, and that students and staff are remaining in the building until authorities advise that it is safe to leave.
  • Provide directions to close and lock all windows, exterior doors and any other openings to the outside.
  • If you are told there is danger of explosion, direct that window shades, blinds or curtains be closed.
  • Have employees familiar with your building’s mechanical system turn off all fans, heating and air conditioning systems. Some systems automatically provide for exchange of inside air with outside air – these systems, in particular, need to be turned off, sealed or disabled.
  • Gather essential disaster supplies, such as nonperishable food, bottled water, battery-powered radios, first aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, duct tape, plastic sheeting and plastic garbage bags.
  • Select interior rooms, above the ground floor, with the fewest windows or vents. The rooms should have adequate space for everyone to be able to sit in. Avoid overcrowding by selecting several rooms if necessary. Classrooms may be used if there are no windows or if the windows are sealed and cannot be opened. Large storage closets, utility rooms, meeting rooms and even a gymnasium without exterior windows will work well.
  • It is ideal to have a hard-wired telephone in the rooms you select. Call emergency contacts and have the phone available if you need to report a life-threatening condition. Keep in mind that cellular telephone equipment may be overwhelmed or damaged during an emergency.
  • Bring everyone into the room. Shut and lock the door.
  • Use duct tape and plastic sheeting (heavier than food wrap) to seal all cracks around doors and any vents into the room.
  • Write down the names of everyone in the room, and call your schools’ designated emergency contact to report who is in the room with you.
  • Listen for an official announcement from school officials via the public address system, and stay where you are until you are told all is safe or you are told to evacuate. Local officials may call for evacuation in specific areas at greatest risk in your community.


Local officials on the scene are the best source of information for your particular situation. Following their instructions during and after emergencies regarding sheltering, food, water and clean up methods is your safest choice.


Remember that instructions to shelter-in-place are usually provided for durations of a few hours, not days or weeks. There is little danger that the room in which you are taking shelter will run out of oxygen and you will suffocate.


For more information visit the American Red Cross

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