If hazardous materials are released -- or threatened to be released -- during an emergency that may affect your property, authorities may instruct the public to "shelter-in-place." This means that everyone must immediately take refuge in a room with as few windows and as little ventilation as possible, to minimize the risk of exposure to airborne chemical, biological, or radiological contaminants.
Property owners, including landlords, must cooperate by letting people take shelter at their property. For example, if a plane carrying hazardous materials crashes or a chemical plant catches fire, authorities may instruct nearby property and business owners to allow the public to shelter-in-place on their property.
It's important for landlords to be familiar with their shelter-in-place obligations because providing shelter at a residential property requires the cooperation of employees, tenants, and any visitors who happen to be on the property at the time of the emergency. Here's what you need to know in order to comply with a shelter-in-place order.
The shelter-in-place order usually gets communicated through television, radio, and the Internet. Here's what landlords should do if they must comply with such an order.
If any visitors (such as vendors or prospects) are in your building when you get the order to shelter-in-place, ask them to stay and let you guide them to a safe place. Explain the danger of leaving to any visitors who don't wish to comply with the order.
Collect nonperishable food items, bottled water, battery-powered radios, first-aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, and materials you may need to seal cracks, such as duct tape, plastic sheeting, and plastic garbage bags. (If you're reading this and realize that you don't have all of these supplies at your property, take the time to purchase what you need now.)
Relocate to confined rooms with no exterior windows, such as a large storage closet, utility room, pantry, or conference room. Try to use rooms that are on the lowest floor possible, with the fewest windows or vents, and choose as many such rooms as you need to avoid overcrowding. You can't rely on cell phone reception in an emergency, so try to choose a room that has a hardwired telephone. This way, you and those sheltering-in-place with you can reach emergency contacts as well as report any sudden medical emergencies.
If you're in a room with windows, exterior doors, and other openings to the outside, make sure they're closed and locked. Use items such as duct tape, plastic sheeting, and plastic garbage bags to seal cracks around doors and vents to prevent contaminated air from entering the room. Put a wet towel at the bottom of the door as an extra precaution against contaminants. If you're warned that an explosion may occur near your property, shut the blinds, curtains, and shades. Finally, tell your maintenance staff to turn off all fans, heating, and cooling systems at your property.
Sheltering-in-place normally lasts no more than a few hours. Once you are properly sheltered-in-place, let employees, tenants, and visitors call home or reach other emergency contacts to let them know their whereabouts and that they're safe. Take advantage of the downtime to write down the names of everyone with you and their reason for being on your property (for example, Jane Smith, resident manager; John Jones, visiting paper supply vendor). You can use this list to let authorities know who's with you, if asked.
Continue monitoring the situation on the radio, television, and the Internet, if possible. Within a few hours, expect authorities to give you the all-clear or, if a danger is still present, order you to evacuate the property. Don't rely on what someone in the room believes he heard from a friend over the phone. Listen to all instructions carefully so that you know when a shelter-in-place order has been lifted and what, if any, risk remains to you, your employees, tenants, and visitors.
To learn more about how landlords should prepare for and handle disasters and emergencies, get Every Landlord's Property Protection Guide: 10 Ways to Cut Your Risk Now, by Ron Leshnower (Nolo).