Bringing Shelter-In-Place Into Practice During an Emergency

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May 5th, 2015 by Michael Vesely

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Recent civil unrest in Baltimore has caused numerous organizations, both public and private, to institute an array of emergency protocols in order to better protect staff and resources. The most common steps taken are to evacuate buildings and to cease operations for a limited time. Using the term “evacuation” might sound extreme, but evacuations are something inculcated to the American populace from a very young age, i.e. school fire drills. A fire drill is just a rapid evacuation of a structure due to some danger present within the building. In these situations it is safer for the occupants to be outside rather than to remain indoors.

What happens when this risk is inverted? What happens when greater risk exists outside of the building than within? If there were a hazmat spill or active shooter outside of a building, it would be more hazardous to evacuate occupants into the zone of danger than to have them remain in an area of relative safety. In these instances, shelter-in-place protocols are initiated. Sheltering in place requires occupants of a building to take refuge in a designated area that minimizes some of the risk posed by the incident. A shelter-in-place procedure can also be used in situations where evacuation might be preferable, but circumstances prohibit it.

Recently, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) has issued multiple shelter-in-place orders during periods of civil unrest in downtown Baltimore when the University Police Force determined that it was unsafe for campus occupants to leave buildings or move about campus. In a letter to the University community, President Jay A. Perman, MD, noted this was the first time the University has issued such orders in decades.

The University has made great strides over the past several years in improving its ability to implement effective shelter-in-place procedures. Under a contract with the University, CHHS has worked for nearly two years with the UMB Police Force and UMB Environmental Health Services to build upon existing plans and improve emergency preparedness and response on campus. Continuity of Operations (COOP) Planning for all schools and divisions within the University have prepared faculty and staff to continue essential functions in the event of a disaster, while a series of drills and exercises has given key stakeholders hands-on practice in activating an Emergency Operations Center, preparing and delivering emergency alerts, as well as bringing together the campus executive staff to walk through high-level decision making during a crisis. Additional work under the contract, which runs through fall 2015, will focus on evaluating campus security, including building evaluations and critical asset management.

One of the exercises developed and facilitated by the CHHS Exercise and Training team happened to be a shelter-in-place drill, hosted by the School of Pharmacy. This drill was conducted on September 9, 2014, and allowed UMB to test and refine shelter-in-place procedures while providing all of those who occupy specific roles during these orders with an opportunity to practice performing these tasks. In summer 2015, CHHS will conduct another shelter-in-place drill at UMB’s School of Social Work, implementing lessons learned from last September’s drill, as well as the recent use of shelter-in-place protocols implemented in the aftermath of the response to the death of Freddie Gray.

Even amidst the unrest and rapidly evolving situation, UMB performed well in its implementation of shelter-in-place. However, like all emergency preparedness operations, there remains room for improvement, which the University is committed to addressing. Given the size and urban location of UMB, more campus employees require training and the chance to practice the duties that they would be tasked with in these types of situations. In addition, the constant departure of graduating students and enrollment of incoming students continually creates new groups of people unfamiliar with UMB emergency policies. The only way to ensure that all employees and students know what to do during a shelter-in-place order is to give them meaningful opportunities to practice against the backdrop of different scenarios. In this way, UMB is dedicated to moving towards a situation where shelter-in-place proficiency equals that which we have so far achieved in fire drill/evacuation procedures.

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