Emergency Shelter Assessment

By David Hattis, Senior Advisor of Federal and State Programs, IBTS


Establishing strategies for evacuation and local emergency shelter is an essential component of comprehensive resilience planning to ensure the safety of your community in the event of a disaster. Structures assumed to serve as public shelters, usually public buildings and schools in particular, must be rigorously evaluated for structural and functional capacity in advance of utilization. The Strategic Plan for the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program (NWIRP) published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in March 2017 identifies three Goals, 14 Objectives, and seven Strategic Priorities. Strategic Priority #6 is Enhance and Promote Effective Storm Sheltering Strategies, which states the following:

“NWIRP can develop guidelines for evaluation of the best available refuge areas within existing buildings. There is a need for improved guidance on selection of best available existing facilities in hurricane-prone regions, particularly in high density coastal areas where evacuation of much of the population is not feasible.”

IBTS developed a state-of-the-art criteria checklist based on our experience as well as reviews of documents, including documents published by the State of Florida, American Red Cross (ARC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), International Code Council (ICC), U.S. Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and NIST. For a list of specific documents, please see Figure 1.

Plan reviews and physical inspections of the 12 proposed shelter buildings were conducted based on a checklist created by IBTS. The building review findings were processed through a Least Risk Decision Method (LRDM) and recorded in tables (see Figure 2) that formed the basis for prioritization of the facilities. As a result, five buildings were eliminated as places of refuge from windstorm events, and the remaining seven buildings were prioritized as places of refuge.

IBTS also provided recommendations for building interior retrofit measures to offer interior safe spaces, as well as exterior retrofit measures to present the entire building as refuge area with preliminary cost estimates provided. Recommendations included which retrofit measures to implement based on benefit/cost analysis, where the benefits are sheltering capacity measured in square feet of safe space.

As for non-wind shelters, all the buildings were structurally suitable as non-wind shelters after inspection for conditions following rain, snow and ice events. Minor dimensional modifications are required to achieve full accessibility compliance.


Lessons Learned

  1. The process of criteria development, facility assessment, facility prioritization and retrofit cost estimation results in an actionable program for local government.
  2. The process followed in this county is replicable. It can be initiated in other Virginia communities and can be adapted for implementation in other states.
  3. Of 12 buildings initially proposed as windstorm shelters in the county five were eliminated based on the checklist criteria, confirming the importance of the evaluation process.


Figure 1. Document Review

  1. State of Florida Model Hurricane and Evacuation Shelter Selection Guidelines, October 1997.
  2. Florida’s Hurricane Shelter Selection Guidelines Review, July 30, 2001.
  3. State of Florida shelter Retrofit Report, September 1, 2005.
  4. State of Florida Least Risk Decision Making: American Red Cross (ARC) 4496 Hurricane Evacuation Shelter Prescriptive Summary Guidance, April 18, 2014.
  5. Standards for Hurricane Evacuation Shelter Selection, ARC 4496, Rev. January 2002.
  6. FEMA P-431, Tornado Protection: Selecting Refuge Area in Buildings, Second Edition (2009).
  7. FEMA Best Available Refuge Area (BARA) Checklist, developed for the first edition of FEMA P-361.
  8. International Code Council (ICC) 500, Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters.
  9. Guidance on Planning for Integration of Functional Need Support Services in General Population Shelters, FEMA, November 2010.
  10. FEMA P-785, Shelter Field Guide.
  11. ADA Checklist for Emergency Shelters, U.S. Department of Justice, July 2007.
  12. Environmental Health Assessment Form for Shelters, CDC.
  13. NFPA 1616, Standard for Mass Evacuation and Sheltering, Public Comment #40 and Proposed NFPA 1616 Annex X, submitted by Dr. Marc Levitan on behalf of NIST.



Figure 2. LRDM Table






1.       Storm Surge Inundation
2.       Rainfall Flooding/Dam Considerations
3.       Hazmat & Nuclear
4.       Lay-Down Hazard Exposure
5.       Wind & Debris Exposure
6.       Wind Design Verification
7.       Construction Type/Loadpath Verification
8.       Building condition/Wind Damage History
9.       Exterior Wall construction
10.    Fenestrations & Window Protection
11.    Roof Construction/Roof Slope
12.    Roof Open Span
13.    Roof Drainage/Ponding
14.    Interior Safe Space
15.    Life Safety/Emergency Power
16.    Site Infrastructure
17.    Mass Care Characteristics


A.       Passenger Drop-Off Areas
B.       Parking
C.       Sidewalks & Walkways
D.       Entering the Emergency Shelter
E.       Hallways & Corridors
F.        Check-In Areas
G.      Sleeping Areas
H.       Restrooms & Showers
I.         Public Telephones
J.         Drinking Fountains
K.       Eating Areas
L.        Availability of Electrical Power
M.     Single-User or “Family” Toilets
N.      Health Units/Medical Care Areas
O.      Accessible Portable Toilets