Learn How to Shelter in Place

Editor’s Note: This is an updated an revised edition for 2018.

A number of years ago, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Seattle area.  I was at work and the Survival Husband was at our house in Bellevue.  Right before the earthquake hit, my little dog ran up to him and jumped in his arms.  Then it hit.

We were lucky and suffered no damage but my neighbors home fell off its foundation.  Our home,  sitting at an altitude of 1000 feet at the top of a hill and on a steep bank, was  safe.  Funny how that works.

Following that event, I learned-up about post earthquake safety and of course, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about being prepared for an earthquake.  One of the lessons I learned after the 2001 quake was that if you are safe – and the authorities are not suggesting an evacuation – stay put.  Your very best chance of survival is to remain in your home or your office or even the shopping mall if that is where you happen to be.

FEMA defines Shelter in Place as the process of staying where you are and taking shelter, rather than trying to evacuate. Here are some guidelines from FEMA’s Ready America website:

Shelter in Place and Seal the Room

  • Bring your family and pets inside.
  • Lock doors, close windows, air vents and fireplace dampers.
  • Turn off fans, air conditioning and forced air heating systems.
  • Take your emergency supply kit unless you have reason to believe it has been contaminated.
  • Go into an interior room with few windows, if possible.
  • Seal all windows, doors and air vents with plastic sheeting and duct tape. Consider measuring and cutting the sheeting in advance to save time.
  • Be prepared to improvise and use what you have on hand to seal gaps so that you create a barrier between yourself and any contamination.
  • Local authorities may not immediately be able to provide information on what is happening and what you should do. However, you should watch TV, listen to the radio or check the Internet often for official news and instructions as they become available.

shelter_in_place.jpg

Cautions regarding sealing with plastic

Although sealing yourself off can be good in situations like a pandemic or any type of air contamination you do not want to seal yourself off for an extended period of time. There have been cases where people have sealed their space and actually died of lack of oxygen because they did such a good job at sealing and left their space sealed for too long.

Having a good gas mask/respirator for each member of your family is a better solution in most cases.

A real gas mask is best but even a respirator with a Volatile Organic Compounds apparatus is better than sealing yourself off too well.

Remember that if you seal yourself off good enough for no contamination to reach you then you are completely eliminating any air flow into the space you are in. The more people the less hours of air you have. If you partially seal yourself off then there is going to be some level of contamination.

On the other hand some harmful chemicals can dissipate in hours so a few hours sealed up can help. The problem is how do you tell how much air you have?

Learn how and when to turn off utilities:

If there is damage to your home or you are instructed to turn off your utilities:

  • Locate the electric, gas and water shut-off valves.
  • Keep necessary tools near gas and water shut-off valves.
  • Teach family members how to turn off utilities.
  • If you turn the gas off, a professional must turn it back on. Do not attempt to do this yourself.

Sheltering In Place At Home

Sheltering in place is something you can practice during good times. Sometimes people call this a stay cation nowadays. Isolate yourself and your family. Perhaps just have a radio or small electronic devices. You might even turn off your internet for a day. Keep a journal during this time of your experience. Now is the time to evaluate just how prepared you are and make notes of areas where you are lacking supplies, equipment, and also what is most uncomfortable. You may discover that you have nothing for entertainment besides a few books.

More extreme tests may include turning all your power off. This may inspire you to have a back up solar system or small solar generator like the Yeti 150 or 400 by Goal Zero. It is better to realize and fix your weaknesses now than to find them out when you are trying to get through an emergency.

Be calm

During a stressful situation you can make it a lot worse on yourself and others by not remaining calm. If you have prepped for this moment then you have a lot of positive things going for you. Here are a few things to remember.

1. Breathing exercises.

There is a lot to be said for a deep breath.

2. Take a moment after you have secured your shelter and made sure everyone is ok.

Being “On” is good at times but you need to take a moment and encourage others in your family or group to do the same things.

3. Realize that others are probably not feeling so great too

If you have a family and you have to shelter in place together, it is important to not be quick to anger. Sometimes kids can be calmer than adults because they are young and don’t quite realize danger levels and what ifs at the same level as adults.

Have some easy to access entertainment choices

  • A well charged e reader will last for a long time on a single charge and there are small solar chargers or battery bank solar lanterns that can keep it topped off during a longer emergency.
  • Sitting and staring at the walls is boring and there is no reason for it. Keep some journals or notebooks around and pens.
  • Coloring books and pencils, markers, and crayons can provide entertainment and relaxation for kids and adults alike. There are some gorgeous grown up coloring books out there!

Work Or School

What happens if there is a disaster and you get stuck at work or school? This is scenario that is a bit harder to plan out but you can be more prepared.

If you have the space in your office you might just keep a bag there with some essentials like a small medical kit, water filter, tactical pen, food rations, ect.

School may be harder but you can definitely have a few things like granola bars stashed in your pack. For younger kids you can do the same thing. A Lifestraw doesn’t take up much space and kids can be taught to use one. Food and a water filter are not going to cause a big stink at school either. If you get your kid using a Lifestraw water bottle during the school day then they will just have it. Honestly the tap water at a lot of places alone would make me think it was a good idea if kids are not bad to lose one.

Water issues

Having a few storage containers with 3-4 days worth of water on hand inside can be a good idea. Even if it still needs to be run through a water filter, having the physical water means everything. All situations are unique. If you have to shelter in place but it is safe to go outside and you have some water catchment or a stream then you can utilize your filter system. For these types of situations a gravity fed water filtration system like the AlexaPure or the Hydro Blu 10L Gravity Fed Bag can be very nice to have. The Lifestraw Family is another good potential filter.

During a major emergency, your water may be cut off for awhile. If you are on a private well then you may have no access at all to your main water source if the electricity is turned off.

The Final Word

There are plenty of resources on the web that can provide you with additional information about creating a shelter in place.  But for now, get yourself some 2-4 mil plastic and duct tape but also a gas mask or respirator for each member of your family just in case.  That, plus your emergency food, stored water, first aid kit, and radio will be a positive step forward in being prepared. Also consider doing a dry run to see what is lacking in your shelter in place plan. Create a shopping list of supplies that you might need and buy them as you can. An extra $10-$20 worth of supplies here and there can make your situation a lot better than you might expect.

If you enjoyed this article, consider voting for me daily at Top Prepper Websites!  In addition, SUBSCRIBE to email updates  and receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-book The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

 

  1. Just a brief congrats on your excellent description of how to shelter-in-place. And also to let you know that the technique has been used to good effect numerous times here in the Gulf coast region. Living near Houston, we’ve seen emergency personnel issue shelter-in-place instructions for such things as refinery fires, explosions, pipeline ruptures, explosions, fires and chemical plant explosions, etc. For whatever reason, developers seem to find it profitable to build human dwellings within quarter mile radius of such facilities and oddly enough, many people live in these subdivisions. Now an interesting side-bar comment is that the shelter-in-place type order is usually used where there’s fear of a “fall-out” type event, fall-out that is of noxious fumes, poison gases, clouds of debris, etc. However, shelter-in-place isn’t recommended for some events such as Hurricanes. Also, shelter-in-place is sometimes used as a measure of last resort when time doesn’t permit any other type precaution. Obviously, we can see the Hurricanes coming our way.

    Of late, here along the gulf coast we’ve become somewhat skeptical of the shelter-in-place orders when it comes to larger events such as hurricanes because the gov’t authorities seem to be playing about with a new paradigm relative to catastrophic storms, i.e. selective, orchestrated evacuations. Thus, we’ve seen them “advise” SIP for those living inland, typically 40 to 60 miles from the coast, and on high ground, while attempting to “time” evacuation orders for coastal and low lying areas. This arrangement has come into practice because of the lack of manageable freeway/highway evacuation lanes. Thus, they try to evacuate those, on the coast say, first and then have those in the low lying areas “near” or bounding the coast, follow-in behind those from say, Galveston. The result has been that during the Ike hurricane, the evacuation was far more orderly and the numbers of people successfully evacuated prior to landfall was very high, upwards of a million or more. The downside was that many took the hint to shelter in place only to fall victim to tornadoes, flash flooding, flying debris, falling trees and of course the “miseries” of the weeks long aftermath without electricity. As a result, many now refer to Shelter-in-Place as “Die-in-Place” and have taken the rather cynical view that what the gov’t really wants is to evacuate it’s “client” classes at the expense of everyone else. I don’t really think that’s the case; I think they’re simply trying to perfect their evacuation procedures and believe me, compared to the Katrina/Rita debacle, they’ve done a fine job.

    Having said all that I’d add this last comment to the effect that nothing, and I mean nothing beats having a “get-away” to get away too, especially if you’ve got small kids or, as in my case, grand-kids. Our “get-away” is 300 miles from Harris county and 150 miles from any major city. The caveat which must be followed however is that a get-away doesn’t work for the clueless; one must remain ever vigilant and watchful of the news and weather information. Thus, when Ike came our way, my wife, daughters, 4 grand-kids, (and the dog) were safely “sheltered” in place at the get-away a week before the storm hit. And the reason that nothing beats a get-away, especially when you have small children? You ever try to survive with 4 yapping kiddos barely out of diapers when the grocery shelves are bare, the power is out, the nightime temperature is 98 and the humidity is 100%?????? Yea, try that for two weeks!

  2. I have a simple question:
    After you set yourself up in your home according to the shelter in place directions, all the air supply is practically cut off from the outside, right?
    So how long will your air supply last in that room?
    Just wondering…

  3. //www.ready.gov/faq#q19

    You must use caution as this is just designed for short term use. I believe there was actually a family in 2000 that perished this way..found it..

    //www.snopes.com/rumors/ducttape.asp

      1. I have been researching this an author named f. j. Bohan has wrote a book called Emergency Air you may want to pass the info on. it gives inexpensive ways to provide air for SIP. the other alternative is costly over 5K for air replacement units.

    1. The Snopes article mentioned that they were using a coal heater which they claimed used up the oxygen in the room. I would suspect that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning as using coal in an enclosed space is a huge safety hazard.

      And in general, in a sealed room, you’ll have trouble with carbon dioxide long before you use up the oxygen in the room. High levels of carbon dioxide are deadly – once it reached 10% concentration, without aid you will pass out and die in short order.

  4. Quite frankly the suggestion to create a sealed room and get in it.. Is probably one of the most horrific suggestions I have every seen. People inside will simply use up the oxygen fall asleep and die.

    1. You do have to use caution regarding this. The excerpt below is from the article and explains that you do not want to do this for an extended period of time. Some chemicals largely dissipate quickly. Chlorine gas is one example.

      Cautions regarding sealing with plastic

      Although sealing yourself off can be good in situations like a pandemic or any type of air contamination you do not want to seal yourself off for an extended period of time. There have been cases where people have sealed their space and actually died of lack of oxygen because they did such a good job at sealing and left their space sealed for too long.

      Having a good gas mask/respirator for each member of your family is a better solution in most cases.

      A real gas mask is best but even a respirator with a Volatile Organic Compounds apparatus is better than sealing yourself off too well.

      Remember that if you seal yourself off good enough for no contamination to reach you then you are completely eliminating any air flow into the space you are in. The more people the less hours of air you have. If you partially seal yourself off then there is going to be some level of contamination.

      On the other hand some harmful chemicals can dissipate in hours so a few hours sealed up can help. The problem is how do you tell how much air you have?

    2. I agree! Sealing yourself anywhere is a crazy idea. I was in the 6.8 in Olympia, WA in the Post Office. When it hit, I ran outside with everyone else. Growing up in S. CA where earthquakes happen often, I learned that going outside was your best bet. Buildings fall and people die. Air quality is important but so is your life. GO OUTSIDE and do not stay inside any home or building and especially don’t seal you or your family in a room that can fall on top of you!

  5. I like the trains of thought coming from everyone on this. It’s rare that folks don’t just blindly follow instructions.
    MOPP gear is a better solution IMO than trying to initially airtight the rooms/structure completely. You still want to seal as well as possible to keep down the contamination but MOPP/Tyvex gear is quicker and easier. Sealing the room would be a secondary improvement if I have my gear and/or mask available.

  6. Particularly at night broken glass is possibly unseen on the floor. Northridge quake 1994 -6.8…also no heavy obstacles hanging over bed.GC

  7. Sealing yourself up in one room is only a short term fix. If you’re dealing with a persistent chemical/biological contamination or radiation, the rest of the house will be contaminated when you come out of your cocoon. Secondary internal contamination/infection could be a huge issue. All you’ll be doing is delaying the outcome if not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). That’s why protective suits and a full face mask with good filters MAY be the only logical alternative with certain agents. How would you decontaminate a persistent agent from the whole house? Probably can’t. Permeable fabrics/surfaces would be contaminated and have to be replaced. Your bedding, clothes, food, carpet, furniture, curtains, insulation would be contaminated and have to be removed, much like a major flood. Your (open to air) attic may be inaccessible without PPE for years and may allow leaching of the agent through the ceiling surfaces and fixture openings (may need to seal outlets, fixture openings too). Basements and crawl spaces will hold heavier and penetrating gasses. HVAC equipment may be contaminated. Your vehicle (even in the garage) may need extensive decontamination before you can use it. Assume contamination until tested. It would be very ugly. Pray we never have to experience anything like this. Best bet is to NOT be down wind if that’s possible.

  8. I was also working in Seattle during the 2005 earthquake. After that, all employees were trained to respond to earthquake by diving under their desks and required to have 2 liters of water and food like granola bars placed in zip lock bags under our desks. The company had quarterly inspections for compliance. Nothing else was allowed under your desk except a small trash bin. Don’t know if you’d actually be safer under a desk, but at least you would be protected from falling debris and if you got trapped you would have a little water and food until help arrived. Not sure if other businesses do this, but it seemed like a good idea.

  9. The comments are freaking me out but they do ring true. It sounds like SIP is only good for certain storms and earthquakes, depending on how close you are to the center. SIP is also good for power outages and water contamination if you have prepared. And it’s good for epidemics and pandemics that are spread by fluid contact not air. According to some of the comments, once biocontamination, chemical contamination or nuclear radiation have permeated the air, you are screwed unless you have Level 4 PPE and enough gas plus extra gas container to drive beyond the reach of the air contamination. And the backup gas must be properly stored because gas goes bad.

    So I have a question. How do you eat, drink, or go to the bathroom without breaching the integrity of the PPE?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *