“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”  — H.K.Williams

On July 18, 2019, two people were injured after a chemical fire broke out at Diamond Chemical Company in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  At least one of the chemicals involved in the fire was chlorine, which is poisonous, especially as a gas.  When it encounters moist tissue such as the eyes, throat and lungs, an acid is produced that can damage the tissue, thus leading to both short-term and long-term health complications following the initial exposure.  Rutherford police issued a shelter-in-place order as they investigated.  Hazmat responders arrived at the scene to monitor the air quality.  Thankfully, the air was clean and clear and the shelter-in-place order for the 8,900 people in the nearby town of East Rutherford was lifted.

We often consider the consequences of an incident in terms of the employees injured or killed.  In truth, there are other impact vectors than personnel.  One of these vectors is the community.  A release at a chemical plant near a populated area affects not only the employees, but also the population and property of the towns around the facility.

If you’re a member of a community that’s located in the vicinity of a chemical plant, it’s important that you understand not only the hazards involved, but how to protect yourself and prepare for an emergency.  The best place to start is by familiarizing yourself shelter-in-place.

What is Shelter-in-Place?

I didn’t grow up near a chemical plant and I’ve never worked at one. I’ve never worked for the government or the news. In fact, I’d never even heard of shelter-in-place until I started working in process safety.  Now that I know what it is, however, I know how important it is that members of the general public are familiar with shelter-in-place procedures.

The American Red Cross says the warning is issued when “chemical, biological, or radiological contaminants may be released accidentally or intentionally into the environment.”  More recently, shelter-in-place practices have been utilized during active shooter events, which means it’s more important than ever to know what to do in the event of a shelter-in-place warning.

If you’ve never heard of shelter-in-place or don’t know exactly what it means, it’s a warning to seek safety within the building you are already occupying, rather than to evacuate the area or seek a community emergency shelter. Sometimes the best way to stay safe in an emergency is to get inside and stay put. Where you should stay can be different for different types of emergencies. Depending on the emergency, this could also mean staying in a car, or some other form of transportation.  Basically, stay where you are and don’t go outdoors.

How Will You Be Notified?

While your town may not necessarily have an alarm or a siren to notify you of a shelter-in-place warning, there is a plan in place to get the word out. Nuclear power plants are required to be equipped with audio alert systems that can be heard within a 10-mile radius.     In other cases, local authorities will issue advice to shelter-in-place via television or radio.  If you are able, it’s important to keep a television or radio on, even during the workday.  Those responsible for circulating the warning might also make use of an emergency alert system, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather reports, and announcements from vehicles equipped with public address systems.

The advances in technology have improved the ability to distribute the warning quickly and effectively.  The capability to push notifications through to cell phones and vehicles means more people are getting the message more quickly and less people are being exposed to the hazard.  Earlier warning systems such a television and radio certainly aren’t obsolete but, the faster the message spreads, the more people it can save.

What Should You Do in the Event of a Shelter-in-Place Warning?

As Howard Ruff said, “It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”  In other words, when an emergency is upon us, the time to prepare has passed.  Do you know what you should do if a shelter-in-place warning is issued?  Does your family? As with any emergency, being prepared and well informed is crucial to your own safety as well as the safety of your loved ones.

Being prepared for shelter-in-place means knowing what to do when the warning is issued.  OSHA tells us that shelter-in-place means selecting an interior room or rooms within your home or facility, or one with no or few windows, and taking refuge there.  It doesn’t mean sealing off your entire home or office building, unless instructed to do so, but the warning may include advice to turn off fans, heating and air conditioning systems and close fireplace dampers.  It’s best to familiarize yourself with the hazards in your immediate area to know for certain, but instructions will be provided at the time the warning is issued and will continued to be provided throughout the duration of the warning.  If you’re traveling via public transportation or private vehicle, follow the advice of the issuing authority as how to proceed.

As with any emergency, it’s also important to have a plan.  Make sure your family knows what to do in the event of a warning.  Make shelter-in-place preparation a part of general emergency planning.  Designate a room for use in the event of a warning, locate heating and air conditioning shut off switches, keep well-stocked and up-to-date survival kits in your home and vehicles, and maintain a supply of emergency food and water.  It’s better to be overly cautious than to find yourself under-prepared.

Follow the Instructions

The single most important thing you can do in the event of a shelter-in-place warning is to follow the instructions precisely as issued.  Take shelter when advised, as advised, and don’t leave your shelter until you’ve been told it’s safe to do so.  Humans tend to have an invincibility complex, or an “it won’t happen to me” attitude.  It can, and it will if you don’t take appropriate precautions.

Educate Yourself

Do you live near a chemical or a nuclear plant?  What hazards are a threat to you and your family?  Be informed about the different kinds of emergencies that could affect your area and ways officials share emergency information. Ask your local emergency management agency about the best places to take shelter during different types of emergencies.  Use the resources at your disposal to educate yourself and your family. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be.

FEMA has published a list state and territorial emergency management agencies; don’t hesitate to contact your state office if you have any questions.