Travel Risk Management & Specialist Risk Consulting
Shelter in Place – What Does That Mean?
August 5th, 2016   Randy Haight

The global events that have occurred over the past two years make it abundantly clear, to anyone paying attention, that the world is becoming increasingly dangerous; not only to the global traveler but innocent people just carrying out their daily activities. In recent weeks, the world has witnessed a series of terrorist attacks targeting large groups of people in public places.

During the attacks where the situation was unclear or unresolved, you may have heard the government, law enforcement or media representatives advise people to “shelter-in-place.” What does this mean? Does everyone in your company know what this means? How about your family? I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say it may be the difference between surviving a violent attack or not.

It should go without saying that people need to remain vigilant when traveling in foreign countries and known hot spots. However, any public travel, at home or abroad now carries some risk. Are the odds more likely that today’s visit to the shopping mall will be just like every other day? Of course, they are, however, I’m sure that’s what many of the victims of recent attacks also believed. I’m not advocating that you and your employees or family members remain cloistered in your homes or office. What I am saying is that you should heighten your awareness anytime you are in a public area, whether you are attending a concert, sporting event or just shopping at the local mall.

Let’s start with the basics. Security, law enforcement, military personnel and others are trained to maintain ‘situational awareness‘ at all times. There are a lot of definitions for situational awareness, however, to break it down in the most practical terms, it means, being aware of what is going on around you. Think of yourself moving in your own personal bubble. You are aware of your movements, intentions, and actions inside that bubble. You may have your face buried in your smartphone or wearing earbuds while listening to your favorite heavy metal music during your morning commute.

Practicing situational awareness means that you must expand your bubble to include a much larger area. Just like driving a car, you must pay attention to other drivers, cross traffic, your rear and side view mirrors, oncoming traffic and of course, what’s happening in front of you.

Now take this concept and apply it while you are walking through your local shopping mall. You must develop this sense the same way you developed your driving skills. It doesn’t come easy. It must be learned through constant repetition. It’s often referred to as a ‘perishable skill’ that needs to be practiced.

Let’s talk about ‘cover‘ and ‘concealment’. Sadly, everyday citizens must now be acutely aware of what these terms mean. These are no longer terms that apply to just the military and law enforcement personnel. Simply put, ‘cover’ means protection from projectiles such as bullets and bomb fragments. ‘Concealment’ means that you are hidden. Many people think that just because they are concealed, they are safe from bullets. It is not like the movies; bullets can, and often do, travel through doors and walls.

Situational awareness includes noticing nearby exits and places where you can move quickly to a place of cover. It may be a concrete wall or a large metal object. It could be a metal desk or large filing cabinet. It most certainly is not behind a wooden door or sheet rock wall. You should constantly be looking for cover whenever you are in a public area. Your mental file should be continuously updating these locations as you move about. In places that you routinely visit, or in your workplace, you should know where you can find cover immediately.

Often during an attack or crisis event, law enforcement or security forces are simply not able to respond directly or immediately to assist affected people. We have seen this in recent attacks, particularly those involving an active shooter or multiple shooters. To save yourself, you must find cover immediately and shelter-in-place.

Global Crisis Response Teams usually define shelter-in-place in several ways. Within the traditional context of emergency management shelter-in-place means selecting an interior room or rooms within your home or workplace facility, or ones with no or few windows, and taking refuge there due to an environmental hazard such as an accidental (or intentional) chemical spill or radiation release or another hazard.

Within the context of crisis situations involving mass attacks, such as active shooters or terrorist events, shelter-in-place means, if you cannot get to a nearby exit quickly and safely, then move to a position of cover and if possible, concealment, as quickly as possible. This is what is known as immediate shelter-in-place.

Your next thoughts should be to improve your situation. Do you know where the danger is? Can you see or hear anything? Can you move to an exit safely or should you look for a more secure location to shelter-in-place? Such a location might be a hotel, storage, service, bath or other room that you can secure. Consider moving to this location only if you can do so safely, or if your position has been compromised and you are in immediate danger.

If you can get to a more secure location, you may find that this is where you must remain until help arrives. It may take several hours or up to one or two days. This is a short-term shelter-in-place. It is not a location where you can remain indefinitely unless it happens to have food and water and other basic necessities.

Your priorities should be focused on your immediate safety. Turn off the lights. Lock the door. Silence your mobile telephone. Begin to improve your shelter-in-place location by jamming the door or by placing additional obstacles between you, the door, and potential attackers. If it is safe to do so, attempt to alert the authorities of your location and provide them with whatever information you can about the attacker(s). Look for another exit from this location such as a rear exit, window or access panel to the roof or another area. Get down on the ground and wait for help to arrive. Do NOT open the door unless it is for law enforcement or security personnel.

Finally, there are instances where you may need to seek long-term­ shelter-in-place. This usually involves sheltering at a secure location that has the necessary food and medical supplies to sustain you for 1-2 weeks or longer. These are usually identified as, ‘safe havens’. A safe haven can be a hotel room, home, office, or other location that is secure and when possible, not in the immediate crisis area. Safe havens typically have some physical security, ranging from perimeter fences and locked gates to a discrete or overt security presence. Communications such as internet access and mobile or satellite telephone communications are a huge asset. Those people sheltering-in-place can remain in contact with crisis response teams to update them on the situation, to receive instructions from crisis response personnel and to make plans for a safe emergency evacuation out of the area.

Should you find yourself in the middle of a crisis event (I hope you never do), you have a chance to save yourself and possibly others, if you remember this. Maintain your situational awareness and don’t wait for someone to tell you to take cover and shelter-in-place. You have the basics, now teach your employees and your family members and begin developing your survival skills. They just may save your life or the lives of your employees or loved ones.