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Emergency Shelters

Emergency Shelters

In the aftermath of a pandemic or natural disaster, religious and nonprofit organizations may consider using their facilities as emergency shelters. While offering such a service is a tremendous act of compassion, please be aware that your organization will face additional challenges if it establishes a shelter with overnight occupancy. Examples of the risks include the following:

  • The number of exits in the building may not be adequate, and/or exits may lack proper signage and emergency lighting;
  • Increased wear and tear on the facility;
  • Greater chances of property damage or personal injury due to accidents;
  • Additional strain on the facility’s electrical system due to increased occupancy;
  • Additional strain on the plumbing facilities;
  • Greater chances of theft due to increased public access to the building; and
  • The possibility of communicable disease and/or food-borne illness.

Given the potential risks of an emergency shelter, GuideOne recommends taking a number of steps that can help enhance safety and prevent problems from occurring.

Partner With an Expert

Partnering with an established relief agency has a number of benefits. They can likely provide much of the equipment and supplies you will need. In addition, they have trained volunteers and staff as well as time-proven policies and procedures. Many of these agencies will also assume liability for the shelter's activities. This is a win-win for both organizations. The relief agency gets the facility they need to do their work, and your organization gets the benefit of experience and resources.

Establish a Plan Before You Proceed

If you decide to open a shelter in your facility, the initial planning of the project is essential to ensure safe operation. As with any project, it is necessary to set goals based upon the resources available. For instance, do you have enough responsible people to handle the many tasks of operating a shelter? Assuming you have sufficient staff, you will need to prepare the premises, implement safety procedures and establish ground rules. Please consider the following action items in your plan:

  • Check with local officials about requirements for establishing an emergency shelter. Some localities require shower facilities or other minimum requirements.
  • Consult with your local fire department regarding maximum occupancy and fire safety precautions. A good rule of thumb is 45-60 square feet of space per occupant and one toilet for every 16 people.
  • Plan ahead for shelter evacuation in the event of a fire or other emergency. Make sure all of your staff and volunteers understand this emergency plan.
  • Clearly mark all exits and have unobstructed access in and out.
  • Establish, enforce and prominently display rules. (See basic rules on the last page.)
  • Establish oversight and supervision of the building and occupants. This is critical. Designate an employee or volunteer to supervise all volunteers. A supervisor should be on-site at all times and a minimum of two volunteers should be awake at all times to monitor the activity.
  • Do not permit use or possession of illegal drugs, alcohol or weapons. Do not allow unlawful or unruly activities from guests. Hiring outside security may be an option to ensure the safety and security of your guests, volunteers and your building.
  • Monitor each entrance and exit to the shelter at all times and do not allow access to other parts of the facility that are not part of the shelter.
  • Clarify with local official’s expectations for supplying food, water and other supplies to guests in the shelter. If your organization is expected to provide food and water, make sure that an adequate supply can be obtained and that sufficient personnel will be on hand to distribute the items.
  • Assure that meals in the facility's kitchen are prepared only under the supervision of people trained in food safety. Follow adequate sanitation concerning food storage, preparation and serving.
  • Follow adequate sanitation procedures concerning bedding, restrooms, showers and garbage removal. Make sure you have adequate janitorial support to handle the number of guests.
  • Plan in advance how you will respond to individuals who contract a communicable disease or who become seriously ill. Contact the local health department for more information.
  • Establish firm shelter hours so that individuals cannot enter after a specific time. (For example, no one is allowed in after 10:00 p.m.)
  • Require that all guests complete a Guest Registration Form and be given a copy of the shelter rules. Log guests in daily, and require that they sign in and out. Each guest should provide you with at least one emergency contact.
  • Inspect and monitor interior and exterior walking surfaces to make sure they are in good condition, adequately lighted, and kept free of slip, trip and fall hazards.
  • Do not permit animals or pets in the shelter, unless they are bona fide service animals for the disabled.
  • To protect children, eliminate or control any nuisance hazards that might attract them, such as discarded large appliances, unprotected equipment, open holes, wells, paths and stairwells.
  • Consider your guests' special needs (age, mobility, etc.) and plan accordingly.
  • Send guests who would require medical monitoring to the proper facility.


Basic rules for an emergency shelter should include the following:

  1. No alcohol or illegal drugs are permitted on the premises.
  2. No weapons of any kind are permitted on the premises.
  3. No violence or verbal abuse will be tolerated.
  4. No admittance after 10:00 p.m.
  5. A quiet sleeping time will be maintained by 11:00 p.m.
  6. No smoking in the building.
  7. Children must remain with their parent(s) or guardian(s) at all times.
  8. Guests must stay in the assigned room or area and cannot wander around the facility.
  9. Candles, camping lanterns, oil lamps and other open flames are prohibited.
  10. Individuals who violate any rules will be asked to leave the shelter.
  11. For additional information, please check out the following resources:

© 2024 GuideOne Insurance. GuideOne® is the registered trademark of the GuideOne Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific legal or risk management advice, nor are any suggested checklists or action plans intended to include or address all possible risk management exposures or solutions. You are encouraged to retain your own expert consultants and legal advisors in order to develop a risk management plan specific to your own activities.