When emergency management (EM) officials talk about the security protocols established for emergency shelters, they must be very specific and, at the same time, very holistic. The various factors involved in and/or related to shelter security usually include such essential aspects of shelter management and operations as: threat assessment and/or identification; the evaluation of security operations; the writing and implementation of policies related not only to workplace violence but also to domestic violence; security training programs; threat recognition and evaluation; instruction in “critical incident” policies and procedures; and, last but not least, “sheltering” protocols.

If shelter security is not comprehensive and reliable, it can easily become a disaster of its own making. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recognized this possibility by providing reimbursement for certain safety and security measures recommended for and used at shelters. The specific wording of the FEMA guidance, spelled out in Disaster Assistance Policy 9523.15, is available on the web at www.fema.gov, and includes the following statement: “Shelter Safety and Security. Additional reimbursable safety and security services may be provided at congregate shelters, based upon need. Police overtime costs – associated with providing necessary, additional services at congregate shelters – are eligible for reimbursement.”

  1. Among the key FEMA “strategy elements” governing the establishment and management of shelters are certain essential protocols and related “how to” guidelines. Following are brief summaries of the most important of those protocols: The agency’s Shelter Registration Protocol will allow FEMA field-registration personnel and new Mobile Registration Intake Centers to proactively register evacuees at pre-designated congregate shelter locations as well as at organized evacuee reception sites, including some that are out-of-state.
  2. For the sheltering of evacuees in the “post-landfall” phase (of a major weather disaster, primarily), FEMA may, if warranted, authorize the use of “transitional shelters” – e.g., hotels and motels. This Transitional Sheltering Protocol may be implemented when large numbers of evacuees who are being housed in congregate shelters are not able to return to their homes for an extended period of time. The initial period for staying in a transitional shelter will be established by FEMA on a case-by-case basis, but it will not be more than 30 days (an extension of up to six months may be permitted, however, in unusual circumstances.)
  3. Disaster victims who register and are identified as evacuees will be assigned unique “authorization codes” for transitional sheltering. Those codes will validate the individual evacuee’s eligibility for federally subsidized transitional housing. If the Transitional Sheltering Protocol previously mentioned is implemented, the authorization code will allow evacuees who possess positive photo identification to check into hotels or motels on a subsidized (but temporary) basis.


The FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program

FEMA has, for many years, administered the federal government’s Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, which was created in 1983 to help people in need of emergency assistance by supplementing the work of local social-service organizations, both private and government-run, within the United States. This collaborative effort between the private and public sectors has disbursed more than $2.3 billion in federal funds during its more than two decades of service. The program also has provided a small amount of dependable support to shelters – in many cases helping them remain viable from one emergency to the next – whether the situation involved is a personal emergency of an individual victim or a large-scale disaster situation. [Note: Goss chaired the national board for five years, 1996 – 2001, when the board was a component of the FEMA Preparedness Directorate.]

The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 describes the program’s purpose: “To supplement and expand ongoing efforts to provide shelter, food, and supportive services” for homeless and hungry citizens nationwide. The key characteristics of the program – which also serve as its operational guidelines – are a quick response, public-private sector cooperation, local decision making, and the allocation of funds to the areas with the greatest needs.

Heightened Security at Canadian Homeless Shelters

In a related note, it is worth pointing out that, in response to a recent survey at a Canadian shelter – i.e., the Calgary Drop-In Centre – those coming in, according to residents’ responses, may be required not only to produce identification cards but also to permit their fingerprints to be scanned before they can enter the downtown homeless shelter; the reason given for this double dose of precaution, officials say, is the deep concern for security voiced by those using the shelters.

The Calgary centre, which can shelter up to 1,100 people a night, decided to strengthen its security after a survey of its clients showed that they frequently fear for their safety. That survey (of about 300 clients) disclosed that approximately three-quarters of them had been victims of crime – robberies and/or assaults, for example. Many of those crimes were committed outside the shelter, by strangers, but about the same number of clients said they did not feel any safer inside the centre. John Rowland, who conducted the survey, said he was surprised by the responses from the homeless. “They [those who responded] want … to have invasive security protocols,” Rowland said. “They want to have their belongings searched. They want to have invasive cards.”

The centre is now seeking to determine how much it will cost to improve security by requiring the use of photo cards and biometric technology, such as fingerprint scans, to separate true victims from those who would prey on them. Regardless of what new and/or additional requirements are imposed, it seems all but certain that “free” entry and exit may soon be a thing of the past (in the United States as well as in Canada) because, if nothing else, there will at least be a desk or other entry point where those seeking assistance will have to swipe their assigned barcodes.

Pets, Children, and Common-Sense Guidelines

Animal shelters also are feeling the challenge posed by the frequently difficult need to provide reasonably free access and real security at the same time. The unavoidable fact is that the growth in the number of U.S. animal shelters will undoubtedly be an increasingly important factor not only in planning, training, and exercising for future disasters – especially in the context of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, when many pets were lost – but also in the more inclusive guidelines imposed by Congress in establishing the PETS Act.

A relatively new website (www.animalsheltering.org) lists 13 guidelines that spell out, in easily understood language, the most important steps to follow in establishing and operating safe and secure shelters for pets and other animals. Most of those steps, which apply just as well to other types of shelters, are really “rules for life” spelled out in common-sense terms: 

1. secure your location; 

2. good fences make good neighbors; 

3. get to know the men and women in blue; 

4. prevent the inside jobs; 

5. keep everyone on board; 

6. wield a mighty staff; 

7. the best defense is a good office; 

8. direct traffic in the shelter; 

9. mind your money; 

10. just say no, and use a safe; 

11. all systems go and working well; 

12. lights, camera, action; 

13. off-site options and special cases.

Shifting from pets and other animals to an even more vulnerable element of society, America’s children, it is comforting to note that they also have been receiving greater attention, and protection, in recent years. At the Children’s Shelter in Austin, Texas, to cite but one notable example, it is emphasized that the acronym “SAFE” means Shelter, Apparel, Food & Environment. The Austin Children’s Shelter, like many others, was established and is designed to help children who have been severely neglected and have witnessed drug use and/or domestic violence in their homes.

Children learn at an early age, of course, that not all adults can be trusted to care for them, feed them properly, and protect them. Some adults, including parents, are feared by children – and with good reason. When such children are brought to the Austin shelter, many of them arrive wearing old and dirty clothing, and are famished as well. The center feeds and bathes the children, and provides them with clean clothes, which also is very important to the feeling of safety that children want and need. Throughout their stay at the center, most of the children brought there eat voraciously and often talk about how good the food is.

Many of those children lived in homes where adults were coming in and going out at all hours of the day and night, drinking alcoholic beverages, and taking drugs. Some of the children admitted to the shelter’s staff employees that they had “protected” themselves by living in a fantasy world – and for that reason had trouble relating to a structured environment. A number of the children, moreover, would be so upset they would fight the staff members trying to help them – that was the only way, unfortunately, that those children knew to express their anger. Gradually, though, as the children started to feel safer in the shelter’s nurturing environment, they would tell of the sexual abuses against them by this or that “uncle” or other adult.

In some of the latter cases the shelter staff personnel would take the abused children to a Center for Child Protection for a forensic exam that would help determine the truth of their stories. Typically, and this was the “good news” about the shelter, most if not all of the children who were being cared for ended their stays with a much brighter outlook for the future. They had learned that, contrary to their previous experience, most adults actually can be trusted to meet their basic needs and take care of them, and they also learned, many of them for the first time in their lives, what it is like to feel truly safe.

If there is any lesson to be learned from this brief report on shelters and the protocols used in keeping them secure, it is simply this: The diversity of, need for, and increasing regulation of shelters points to their essential and escalating roles, as well as the mounting challenge to keep them well organized, financially viable, and both safe and secure.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.

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