Friday, October 4, 2013

Shelter in Place

As the disturbing news about the attempted security breach and ultimate shooting in the nation's capital was unfolding yesterday, about the only solid piece of information that was out there was that a "Shelter in Place" directive had been issued. I've heard the term recently, but it's not one that I remember from the not so distant past. Now that the incident has been resolved, although in a tragic way, it seems permissible to detach a bit and ask about this, to my mind, slightly odd term.

To me the phrase has a hint of the officious, and creeps a bit into jargon, when simpler terms like "Take shelter" or just "Stay where you are" might do. A hint of the old "Duck and Cover" creeps in.

So I've unearthed a few interesting things about it. First of all, it hasn't crept over from the military world, as I very much suspected, but from the realm of chemical hazards. These include potential civilian hazards, like refinery accidents, nuclear reactor accidents, and biohazards.

What's odd to me about this is that sheltering in place against a chemical attack would actually be a quite different procedure than lying low to avoid gunshot. The aim of what I take to be the original shelter in place warning was to get people to close off access to all outside air. You tape up the doors and windows, close vents, make everything as airtight as possible. Against a violent intruder--which could be a human, or, as was the case in Morro Bay last spring, a black bear--you would probably just lock the doors and windows and hope for the best. Right?

So when people are told to Shelter in Place, how do they know which path they're meant to take?

This guy is entirely too sanguine. Although he does seem to have covered all options.



  1. I remember in 1989 being on the Belfast to Dublin train. The train shuddered to a halt in the middle of nowhere and a very laconic Jeevesian voice said "There is a bomb on the tracks ahead of us. This service may, therefore, be delayed. Refreshments are available in the bar car. Thank you in advance for your patience."

  2. There is definitely a place for the likes of Jeeves in such scenario.

    My best train tale was coming back to California on the train once and hearing that there had been a kitchen fire in the early morning and that the dining car would be closed but the bar car would be open for snacks. And only then "Is there a doctor on the train?"

  3. "Shelter in place" sounds like just the thing for someone who thinks saying "Take cover" or "Get down" or "Stay here, goddamnit!" carries insufficient authority. Could "shelter in place" be the new "thanks for sharing"?

  4. My favorite was an announcement over the P.A. system after the fire alarms went off in my newspaper's old building: "Minor emergency. We think everything is safe."

  5. I think Shelter in Place is one of those warnings that are transmitted over the Emergency Broadcast System, so it may make sense that they sound officious. And I know lives may be saved if people respond very automatically to things they've been drilled on in calmer times. But this would be a very confusing one to hear if you weren't sure what the calamity was. I can imagine getting mowed down just because I thought, hmm, maybe I ought to go out to the garage to get some duct tape.