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Apartment Emergencies - Tips for Evacuating and Sheltering-in-Place

Avoid Danger by Responding Properly to Important Orders



A calm, orderly evacuation is important to ensure safety.

© Melissa Scheetz / Getty Images

Sometimes, what you must do if you're in your apartment when a crisis strikes is obvious. For example, if you notice a fire in the building, you should get out of the building as soon as you can. (Alerting others to the fire and calling 911 are also advisable.)

But often enough, an emergency occurs in or near your apartment building that may not be obvious to you or your neighbors. In such cases, your landlord or building staff, or police, fire officials or other authorities may issue an order requiring you either to leave—or to stay inside—your building until further notice.

Hopefully, you'll never be in a situation that requires an emergency order. But it's important to be prepared in case you need to follow one. Here are some important tips to keep in mind:

General Tips

Sometimes, evacuation and shelter-in-place orders are urgent, and following such orders promptly are essential for ensuring your safety. On the other hand, evacuation and shelter-in-place orders sometimes are issued out of an abundance of caution. Or, an order may be given as a drill, meaning there's no actual emergency or danger.

Since it's often hard to know for certain exactly how much danger you're in (and, often enough, authorities may be unsure themselves), it's wise to play it safe by heeding the following advice:

  1. Don't panic. If you assume the worst, it can be easy to let your imagination run wild, leading to high anxiety and even panic. Keep in mind that a calm, orderly evacuation is always more efficient. Anxiety can also lead to ignoring shelter-in-place orders, incorrectly believing the best way to escape possible danger is to evacuate. It's always important to try to stay focused and calm—particularly when there's imminent danger.

  2. Take the order seriously. Some people don't panic but put themselves at risk by not taking an evacuation or shelter-in-place order seriously. It's important to follow an order even if you don't know as much as you would like about why you're being asked to do so. Don't assume any evacuation or shelter-in-place order is a drill. Also, remember that just because you don't see any specific threat, such as smoke, doesn't mean there isn't any danger present.


If you're given an order to evacuate your apartment, you probably known that it means you'll need to leave your building until you get the "all clear" that it's safe to return.

But here are some additional considerations to keep in mind:

  • Listen for instructions. Listen carefully to the person telling you to evacuate. She should say whether you must leave the building or be sure to go at least a certain distance away to avoid danger.

  • Take valuables, if possible. Use your best judgment here. If an urgent evacuation is needed and it's clear that there's no time to start looking through your apartment for valuables, then don't waste time doing so. Your life is always more important.

  • Let people know about special needs. If you, a roommate, or a guest has a mobility impairment, you may need certain assistance to evacuate, especially if the situation requires a speedy exit. Let the person who tells you to evacuate know about any help you might need to leave your apartment and reach safety.

  • Get information about a time frame. Does it appear you'll need to leave the building for just a few hours? Or is it possible or likely you won't be allowed back until at least the next day? If so, you may need to start contacting a friend or relative nearby with whom you can crash for a night. Sometimes, authorities set up evacuation centers are or your landlord may be able to provide housing temporarily to displaced tenants in another building. If an evacuation period turns out to last for days, find out if you can return (even with police supervision) to retrieve medications and other important belongings.


Unlike an evacuation, which requires you to leave your apartment, a "shelter-in-place" order means quite the opposite. You'll actually need to stay put inside your apartment or in another part of your building that's above the ground and ideally has few or no windows.

Shelter-in-place orders are normally lifted later that day. They're typically given when authorities are concerned about a possible chemical, biological, or radiological hazard in the area. If you get a shelter-in-place order, it's easy to panic and believe that you need to evacuate. But it's important to realize that your apartment is actually the safest place for you to be at that moment.

If you've never heard of sheltering-in-place and would like more information, check out this useful page from the Red Cross.

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