We often hear in the news about communities and neighborhoods who are told to quickly evacuate because of a toxic chemical spill or other biological hazard that has happened nearby. Highways and railroads are the means of carrying many toxic and hazardous substances that are necessary for the operation of our society. Most cities have chemical storage areas that are used for water treatment and manufacturing. After September 11, 2001, we have come to realize the threat of terrorists using chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological weapons. What if there is no time to evacuate a large population? It is extremely difficult to quickly evacuate large population areas because there are too many people and too few exists. Evacuation is preferable when there is time, but if it isn’t an option, families can do what is called “sheltering in place” with some simple preparation. This means that a family sets up a shelter in their own home. In the event of an airborne biological or chemical hazard, you can seal your family indoors until the hazard blows through, usually in a matter of hours. When you become aware of an emergency, turn on your emergency radio to know what to do for the particular situation. Be sure you are listening to the official emergency station for your area.
Prepare in Advance
Select a shelter in place room.
An upstairs, interior room is preferable since many chemical hazards are heavier than air and travel along the ground. Choose a single room large enough to hold air for all members of your family. Include pets as well. A full-size dog uses twice as much air as an adult and cats use half the air. To determine air needs and occupancy, have everyone in the room stand with outstretched arms. If they can do this without touching anyone else’s outstretched arms there is enough air for one hour. An 8 foot by 6 foot typical bathroom holds enough air for 2 adults and a child under 6 years of age for one hour.
Gather a shelter in place kit.
- 2 mil or Thicker Clear Plastic Sheeting – 250 sq. ft. (1 roll) or enough for the room you chose. Pre-cut and label the plastic sheeting to cover doors, windows, vents, and light fixtures to save time.
- 2 Rolls Duct Tape – Use medium grade or better to tape plastic sheeting in place and to cover all electrical outlets, fixtures, and other areas where air can seep in.
- Sodium Hypochlorite Bleach (Standard Household Bleach) – Use bleach without any added scents or colors to wash anything that might have become contaminated by a biological agent. Rotate often as standard bleach has a one year shelf life.
- Battery Operated Emergency Radio or TV – Check for official news as to when it’s safe to come out.
- Personal Medications – Any medical items that are essential to survive for a few hours.
- Flashlight or Battery Operated Lantern – It is possible you could lose power and light. DO NOT use candles or open flames as they burn valuable oxygen.
- Porta-Potty – Don’t flush the regular toilet as it displaces valuable air.
- Coats, Blankets, Sleeping Bags, Etc. – Items for staying warm without using a heating device that burns oxygen.
- Air Filtering Masks.
- Towels – Get damp and use to jam under door cracks.
- Books, Games, or Other Diversions.
- Cordless Telephone or Mobile Phone.
- Food and Water.
- Small step stool or ladder to reach ceiling fan, vents, or fixtures.
Have your kit prepared in advance. You may not have time to prepare it during the emergency.
- Turn on the emergency radio or TV for official information.
- Turn off all mechanical or electrically operated air intakes or air exchanges to your home; the furnace, air conditioner, chimney flue dampers, and any fans. There is a switch on or next to the furnace that you can flip to actually turn off your furnace. Some thermostats have an actual “off” position for the furnace or A/C, but just turning down the thermostat isn’t enough — you have to TURN THE FURNACE OFF! Do not take the time to get on your roof to cover vents and/or chimney openings.
- Close, lock, and secure your home (windows, doors, animal entries, etc.). Close windows, blinds, and drapes.
- Gather your family, pets, and emergency supplies into the selected shelter in place room. Using the pre-cut and labeled plastic sheeting and duct tape, make the room as air-tight as possible. While gathering your family, you can provide a minimal amount of protection to your breathing by covering your mouth and nose with a damp (not soaking wet) cloth or using an air filtering mask.
- Wet towels and jam them in the crack under each door in that room.
- Use pre-cut plastic sheeting and duct tape to cover windows, heat vents, light switches, power sockets, fireplaces, baseboard gaps (if the baseboards aren’t caulked), light fixtures, entire door frames, attic doors that might be in the room, and where pipes come in through the wall. The precut plastic sheeting needs to fit entirely over the window and door frame so you are actually taping the plastic onto the interior wall and not the casing.
- Limit activity and air usage.
- DO NOT use water from the taps or flush toilets as this could displace valuable air.
- DO NOT use lanterns or candles which burn oxygen. If your power is still on, it is fine to use the electric lights.
- Use a 5% solution of bleach to wash down anything or anyone you think might have been contaminated by a biological agent.
- Stay inside the sealed shelter until you are told OFFICIALLY it is safe to leave.
- When you are OFFICIALLY told it is safe to come out, have one person use an air filtering mask or put a wet cloth over their mouth and nose and go open up all doors and windows, and turn on air exchangers and fans to air out the home. Realize you may still need to stay indoors, quarantined, for a longer period of time.
Prepare beforehand and practice shelter in place procedures with your family. You may not have time in the event of a real emergency to learn by trial and error.