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Chemical Emergencies

There may be a time when an emergency takes place in your community due to an airborne chemical release. The outside air quality may be affected to the point that it is not safe to be outside or to evacuate. In a case like this, it is usually safer to shelter-in-place until wind disperses and moves the chemical away.

The term "sheltering in place" means to get inside a building and remain there during a chemical emergency rather than evacuate the area. Though the natural tendency is to flee from a vapor cloud, it actually may be more dangerous if you have to go through toxic vapors or if you can't outrun them.

Sheltering in place is usually advised when there has been a serious hazardous chemical spill that has quickly caused a toxic atmosphere, and there is not enough time to safely evacuate. Usually, the toxic vapors are dispersed by the wind before an area could be completely evacuated. Sheltering in place is not likely to last more than an hour or two.


If there is an emergency that is a risk to the public, local officials will notify residents by radio, TV or telephone. The sirens may be activated. If sirens are activated, immediately go inside and tune to a local TV or radio station.

If local officials notify residents of a dangerous chemical release, most often there is not enough time for evacuation. The safest immediate action is to shelter-in-place while listening for further instructions.

There may be times when there has been no notice but residents still need to take action. Take immediate action if you:

  • Hear a strange sound like an explosion
  • See a vapor cloud
  • Smell a strange odor
  • Feel nauseous or have burning eyes

Shelter-In-Place: Take Action

  • Move inside
  • Close all windows and doors
  • Turn off ventilation systems
  • Continue to listen to radio or TV

Specific Instructions

Go inside the nearest structure such as a home, school, store or public building. If your children are at school or daycare, do not attempt to get them. The staff have been trained for these types of emergencies. Bring pets inside. If inside already, stay there. Do not go outside to investigate.

What to do Inside a Structure

Shut all windows, doors, chimney or fireplace vents. This includes everything that can quickly and easily be closed to prevent the chemical from entering.

Turn off forced air heating and cooling systems. Turn off exhaust fans.

Go into a room; preferably one with no or few windows. Higher floors are better. Do not use the basement. If possible, seal all doors, windows, vents, etc. with plastic and tape. Use damp towels under doors.

Continue to listen to the radio or TV on a local news station. You may be given instructions to evacuate. You will be notified when the emergency is over. (Use a battery-powered radio if the power is off.)

When you are told the area is safe, you will need to leave your place of shelter and ventilate. Open all the doors and windows and air out the building in case a small amount of the chemical has seeped in.

What to do Inside a Vehicle

Close all windows and shut all manual vents. Turn off the ventilation system. Turn on the radio to listen for emergency information.