What Does Shelter in Place Mean

Shelter in Place: What Does it Mean, and What to Do If You’re Told to Shelter in Place

What Does Shelter in Place Mean?

Shelter in place is still a relatively new term to a lot of people. Those of us in the preparedness community normally understand what it means, and you’ve probably taken place in a shelter in place exercise if you work for any kind of government agency, but there are still tons of people that don’t really understand what it means.

Shelter in place means that you take shelter in the building that you’re already in. Normally, this is a small interior room without windows. Chemical, biological and radiological releases are the usual causes where going outside could expose you to the release.

The key thing to remember when you’re told to shelter in place is to take shelter in the building you’re in. Don’t try to go somewhere else or find a community shelter.

The Meaning of Shelter in Place

According to the CDC, a shelter in place usually happens when a disaster or emergency occurs that happens so fast that evacuation isn’t possible.

When there’s an emergency that makes it too dangerous to go outside in an area, there may be a shelter in place order given by local, state or federal government agencies. An overturned semi transporting chemicals on the highway, a leak at a local factory or even a biological attack by terrorists could all trigger a shelter in place order.

What can cause a shelter in place:

  • Industrial accident
  • Chemical spill
  • Break in a natural gas pipeline
  • Materials transported through the community
  • Terrorist attack
  • Smoke
  • Police activity

You could be alerted to shelter in place in a number of ways. Emergency broadcasts on the tv, radio or phone, loudspeakers, sirens or horns are all ways that you may be alerted.

What should you do when sheltering in place?

Traditionally, a shelter in place is issued to protect you from outside chemical, radiological and biological hazards, but it’s also been used to as a way to keep people inside when the police are active in an area (like the search for the Boston Marathon bomber) and to signal for people to protect themselves from active shooters (like the Fort Hood shooting).

Because shelter in place no longer has a single meaning, you need to understand why you’re being told to shelter in place.

A shelter area will change based on the hazard, but in general, you should move to an inside room, away from exterior doors, windows, and minimal vents. Take your entire family with you and all of your pets.

Large storage closets, utility rooms, pantries, break rooms and conference rooms without exterior windows work well as shelter in place areas.

If you’re sheltering in place with pets you need to make sure that you set up an area for them to go to the bathroom. You’ll need paper towels, newspaper or another way to clean up after them. Do not let them go outside to go to the bathroom.

If you’re sheltering because of a chemical or biological release or terrorist attack:

  • Close all outside doors and windows.
  • If it’s safe, turn off A/C and air handling systems.
  • Eliminate all the ways that air can enter the building.
  • Seal the room with duct tape and plastic.
  • Remove any clothing that may have been contaminated with chemicals and seal it in plastic bags.

If you’re sheltering because of an active shooter or criminal action:

  • Lock and barricade doors.
  • Move away from outside doors and windows.
  • Close window shades and turn off lights.
  • Be ready to fight if you have to, but do not go looking for the shooter.

If you’re sheltering in place because of a natural disaster:

  • Move away from outside windows and doors, as well as large glass objects.
  • Avoid being underneath heavier objects that may fall.

If you need to shelter in place in your vehicle:

  • Pull over to the side of the road in an area where it will be safe to park.
  • Turn off your vehicle and stay inside.
  • Listen for updates on your radio or phone.
Do the following once you’ve made it to your shelter in place room and have completed the previous steps:
  • Contact your emergency contact. Let them know what’s happening, how you’re doing and if anyone is missing.
  • Limit your phone use. During an emergency, cell towers get overloaded very quickly. Keep your use of the phone to a minimum so emergency personnel can use the phone for mission-critical communication.
  • Listening to your radio, television, or phone for updates. Do not leave your shelter until authorities tell you that it’s safe. If you’re told to evacuate the area, follow the instructions you’re given.

What does shelter in place mean for schools?

When a school shelters in place, it means that they have received a warning from local, state or federal government to shelter in place.

The CDC recommends doing the following:

Don’t try to go get your kids when their school is in a shelter in place. They’re not going to send your kids outside until the shelter in place is lifted and you could be driving straight into some kind of toxic environment!

It’s tough to know that your children may be in danger and just sit around not doing anything, but in this case, it’s probably the best idea. The school staff will be doing everything they can to keep your kids safe. You should do everything in your power to keep yourself safe and listen to the radio or tv to find out when they shelter in place is lifted at the school.

Once the emergency is over, there is normally information put out about where you can go to get your kids.

How long should you stay sheltered in place?

You’re expected to stay sheltered in place until you get the “all clear” from emergency personnel. This usually lasts less than 3 hours but it could be longer if there are complications.

Some emergencies just take longer than others to wrap-up.

Unless you have some life and death reason to leave your shelter in place area you should stay inside until you’re told to leave.

What does shelter in place lifted mean?

When a shelter in place is lifted it usually means that whatever caused you to shelter in place is no longer a threat and the emergency is over.

When a shelter in place is lifted, you should follow any directions given to you by police, fire, and other emergency personnel. There may still be a hazard in the area even though you’re no longer under a shelter in place.


Sheltering in place is one of the ways that you can survive emergencies that come on too quickly for you to evacuate. Normally, evaluation ahead of time is the better option but we can’t always know when a disaster is going to strike.

In the past, sheltering in place orders were reserved for airborne chemical, nuclear and biological disasters but now they’re sometime issued for a variety of reasons.

Look for a small room away from windows and exterior doors when you’re choosing a shelter in place area and you’re less likely to affected by the disaster outside.