The rock band “The Clash” have a song entitled “Should I Stay or Should I Go” – which is about a relationship between two people. It’s also a quick summary of Emergency Action Planning – should you shelter-in-place or evacuate?
The emergency management answer to this question is “Depends on what the emergency is” – and its possible the answer may be different over time, distance and shielding from the hazard. That means if you are in a house that’s on fire, it’s best to evacuate no doubt, but if it’s a 30-story office building, it might depend on where the fire is, as to what you do next. And it can get more complicated as time and distance from the hazard changes. If you view all hazards like this, you can make the best decisions for your own life safety and help others, too. The priorities should always be in this order: life safety, incident stabilization, and then property/asset protection. If your house is on fire, the fire department will work to rescue you and your pets first, then make sure the fire does not spread to other homes. You will probably notice they are not concerned with getting water on your big screen tv.
Here are the basics we see for the public actions of emergency action planning: Sheltering-In-Place, Evacuation, and Active Assailant (which may combine both depending on time, distance and shielding). And our basic emergency action plan template covers all three, from an all-hazards perspective. Everyone should organize, equip, train, and exercise themselves to all three actions, they are responsible for themselves.
Sheltering-In-Place means staying where you are and not evacuating. And the “you” we describe in this post can mean you and your family, you and your co-workers, you and your pets, you and your personal care assistant, etc. You be you – and please take into consideration all the unique aspects of you we may forget to mention specifically. Sheltering-In-Place could mean you moving to a safer room in the building or a safer location in the complex or on the campus – but generally this an easier decision where and when to go, when there is existing Planning, Organization, Equipment, Training, and Exercising associated with this action. We call that a POETE process. Planning means having a plan as to where you would go, knowing what you would need there for an extended stay perhaps, and how you would communicate with others if circumstances of the emergency change (for the better or worse). Organization means knowing who is doing what – who may be needed to help you shelter-in-place and then get you back to “normal”. Equipment, as mentioned before is the stuff you need to shelter-in-place. We call it a “Stay Box”. This can hold everything from food/pet food, medicine, battery-powered cell charger, flashlight, water, change of clothes, sleeping bag, whatever. And this is stuff you need to have everywhere you might shelter-in-place, not just at home. So you will need multiple stay boxes. Training is the process of reviewing the plan, asking questions, taking classes, and attending seminars on personal preparedness (the American Red Cross has these for free, so does FEMA) and asking questions of your leadership at work about emergency preparedness and response. And finally Exercising is the practice, practice, practice that everyone needs to do for emergency action planning. Practice your plan, practice using your equipment, practice with others, and practice some “what ifs” from your training.
Evacuation means leaving where you and not sheltering-in-place. It could mean evacuating the entire building, complex, or campus – or just evacuating to a safer place. For that high-rise building fire, residents on the upper floors may evacuate to a different floor which has more fire protection and/or access to a fire stairwell, for example. Residents with mobility concerns may evacuate to what’s called an Area of Refuge, which is a meeting spot for residents to be further evacuated by the fire department. The building may have a designated Emergency Assembly Point outside, for people to meet together for accountability (where officials help make sure everyone has safely evacuated the building). Here’s the POETE process for Evacuations. It is going to sound somewhat familiar to Sheltering-In-Place. Planning means having a plan as to where you would go now and also the “what-ifs” for if you are able to return or not, knowing what you might need while you wait at the Emergency Assembly Point, and how you would communicate with others if circumstances of the emergency change (for better or worse). Organization means knowing who is doing what – who may be needed to help you evacuate and then get you back to “normal”. Equipment, as mentioned before, is the stuff you need to evacuate. “Need” is the operative word. We call it a “Go Bag”. This can hold everything from food, medicine, battery-powered cell charger, electric wheelchair charging devices, flashlight, small amount of water, glow stick, whatever. And as with the Stay Box, you need a Go Bag in different places, too. A purse or backpack you carry with you everywhere will do. Training is the process of reviewing the plan, asking questions, taking classes, and attending seminars on personal preparedness (the American Red Cross has these for free, so does FEMA) and asking questions of your leadership at work about emergency preparedness and response. And finally Exercising is the practice, practice, practice that everyone needs to do for emergency action planning. Practice your plan, practice using your equipment, practice with others, and practice some “what ifs” from your training.
Note that the steps and actions for Evacuations should sound familiar to those for Sheltering-In-Place. We designed this to be similar, for muscle-memory and consistency. There is a lot of preparing work involved for both, but it will be worth it. The point is to act on your plan, and not to panic. The last set of emergency response actions we have put into our all-hazards Emergency Action Plan template is associated with an Active Assailant. This one can combine elements of both sheltering-in-place and evacuation, plus one more which is really difficult to plan for: possibly fighting for your life.
Active Assailant means the threat to your life is right there. Time has run out, and maybe so has distance and shielding. Most people have heard of the Active Shooter threat and maybe even “Run, Hide, or Fight” or “Avoid, Deny, Defend”. You see on the news schools and office buildings going into “lockdown” when there is a nearby threat. This is mis-labeled in our opinion. Those sites where the threat is not (yet) right there are in “Lockout” – they want to put distance and shielding between themselves and the threat. We define a “Lockdown” as the combined set of response actions by the public to a direct active assailant. If the threat is coming through the front door and you can escape safely through the back door – then it is an evacuation for you. If you are nearer the front with no clear/safe way out, then you may choose to shelter-in-place. And if the threat is right upon you – you will need to fight for your own life using any means necessary.
We believe the active assailant threat/hazard is very complex and can include other threats besides a shooter. The actions of first responders are turned upside down for active assailant attacks: fire and emergency medical services are held back until the “scene is safe” and police are reprioritized to “neutralize the threat” above saving the lives of people who have been injured. Here’s the POETE: Plan your actions towards the “Avoid, Deny, Defend” model – you need to incorporate your sheltering-in-place and evacuation planning wherever you are, plus plan to switch actions if necessary. There is no order to “Avoid, Deny, Defend” – nor is there a limit to how many different actions you can take. Focus on life safety – yours. When it comes to Organization, you are pretty much on your own. If you can safely help others, please do so. Please also follow the instructions of first responders to the letter. When you are evacuating from an active assailant incident, the police may not know if you are a threat or an evacuee. The Equipment is not much more than what you already have with a go bag and a stay box. When you are barricading yourself in a safer room, you need to consider how to keep the door closed and possibly how you might have to break a window to escape, or to signal for help. You may also need a bleeding control kit to help with injuries. There is a ton of Training on active assailant for the public, out there. Find some yourself or ask your organization’s leadership to host a class or two. Same for Exercises. We recommend a stair-stepped approach – start with a “Hide” table-top exercise where you discuss what everyone should do for the sheltering-in-place actions, then do a Hide game (internally, where you do not involve any calls to 9-1-1 or any outside responders), then do a Hide functional exercise where you do invite the first responders to help evaluate your exercise (and also gain knowledge of your site and the physical layout, security features, etc.). All of this is scheduled and will include after-action discussions to make sure folks feel more comfortable and confident after each type of exercise. For many, just practicing this exercise in any way, will be extremely stressful. We can help your organization assess their emergency action plans and design an exercise series around active assailant threats.
And by the way, people should think of wildfires and hurricanes as active assailants, too. You may start out sheltering-in-place, but then the circumstances change – your time, distance and shielding from the threat become compromised – and its time to evacuate. Or be rescued if the first responders can get to you. In active assailant threats, you are first-and-foremost responsible for your own life-safety. Do what you have to do to survive – you will have little control over the incident stabilization aspects of this type of threat – and put the life safety of yourself and your family above your property protection or anything else. Stuff and buildings can always be replaced. People cannot.
These are the basics of Emergency Action Plans – and you can download a template at our website, which you can use for your home, your job, even your vacation plans elsewhere. And please let us know any questions or thoughts you may have on all of this – we welcome feedback from our clients and are always looking to improve what we offer. Should you stay or should you go, when there is an emergency? Hopefully now you have a better understanding of how simple the answer is, and also how complex it can be, too.
Michael Prasad, MA, CEM®
Senior Research Analyst
Barton Dunant – Emergency Management Training and Consulting.