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Safety Center > Emergency Preparedness > Terrorism

Answers to Your Questions about Heightened Threat Level

Questions related to shelter-in-place
Questions related to disaster supplies
Questions related to personal disaster preparedness
Questions related to school/business disaster preparedness
General Questions
Questions about specific hazards


Questions related to shelter-in-place

Q: Will anyone tell me to stay in my home or leave the area?

Yes, local government officials will provide instructions on the radio and television. Listen to their advice and follow their instructions.

If local government officials advise evacuating the area, the Red Cross will open shelters in locations that will be safe.

Be careful not to confuse an evacuation shelter with a room in a home or building that is selected to seal up and use to “shelter-in-place.”

Q: What are the important points to remember in case we are told to “shelter- in-place?”

You should be in a place that will afford you protection from a contaminant in the air.

Instructions on how to “shelter-in-place” are provided on our web site at

Please do not confuse the recommendation to have at least three days’ worth of disaster supplies on hand with the amount of time that you may be asked to shelter-in-place. We always recommend having at least three days’ worth of supplies in case stores are closed and roads are impassible due to a disaster like a flood or winter storm.

Q: Does the Red Cross recommend stocking duct tape and plastic sheeting?


These materials have always been recommended to have as part of a Disaster Supplies Kit.

They may be needed if the public is advised by local authorities to “shelter-in-place.”

Q: I’m confused about this duct tape and plastic sheeting recommendation - am I supposed to seal my whole house and do it now? How much do I need? Is plastic really going to stop a chemical agent? What kind of plastic sheeting should I use?

The recommendation to shelter-in-place using duct tape and plastic sheeting will be provided by local government officials only when an emergency occurs. The Red Cross recommends that people have these supplies on hand in case they are needed.

You would seal only one room when advised to do so, and do it only when instructed - not in advance.

It is likely that one roll of duct tape will be adequate. Plastic sheeting of durable thickness (thicker than food wrap) is recommended for covering vents and other openings to the outside - not the entire room. It is intended to provide a barrier to air flow.

While we cannot guarantee that plastic sheeting over air vents will stop all biological, chemical, or radiological agents, it will add to the barrier of protection for your safety.

For further instructions, see “shelter in place” information at

Q: Do I need a safe room? What is a safe room?

A “safe room” as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is a room, preferably below ground, in which people can take shelter from a tornado.

If such a room is below ground, it may not be the safest choice if told to stay at home and “shelter-in-place” during a weapons of mass destruction event due to the possibility that some contaminants may seep into rooms below ground level.

The Red Cross recommends and endorses having a “safe room” in areas where tornadoes are a threat. (For more information on a “safe room,” see ) However, do not confuse a “safe room” used for protection from windstorms with a room selected for “shelter-in-place.” They are technically different, although they serve a similar purpose. If a “safe room” for windstorms is above ground level and has no windows, it can also be an ideal location in which to shelter-in-place.

Q: How much time do I have to get to the room that I have selected in which to shelter-in-place once I hear of an attack?

The situation will vary, depending on the nature of the event. It is best to take immediate protective action as soon as you think there is a local emergency, or if you hear on the radio or television that you need to shelter-in-place.

Q: Do I need to put towels under my door? Should they be wet?

Wet towels under a door are used in cases when you are in a room from which you cannot escape and a fire is on the other side. That is not the same thing as what needs to be done when you shelter-in-place. See the instructions on shelter-in-place at

Q: If I seal off my rooms and vents, how will I breathe? How long should I anticipate being in the room in which I am sheltering-in-place?

Instructions to shelter-in-place are usually provided for a matter of hours, not weeks. There is little danger that the room in which you are taking shelter will run out of oxygen and you will suffocate.

Q: Is the room in which to shelter-in-place a bathroom?

A bathroom may be a good choice for the room in which to “shelter-in-place” as long as it does not have windows (or few windows) and you can block openings (such as vents) to the outside.

Q: What about whole house air filtration systems?

These systems are designed to reduce, but not completely remove, particulate matter in the air inside a home. A house or apartment, itself, is not completely air tight or sealed, even when doors and windows are closed.

Questions related to disaster supplies

Q: How many disaster supplies kits should I have?

We recommend that you stock a complete kit to meet the needs of everyone in your home, and have it packed and ready to take with you in case you are advised to evacuate your home.

You should also have a small disaster supplies kit in each vehicle you have, as well as supplies at your workplace.

Sometimes it is easier to create one kit for each person in your home, so that the container is smaller and easier to carry. The amount of contents remains the same, in total, for everyone in your home.

See “Talking About Disaster” for more information at:

Q: What about my pets? How much should I add to my disaster supplies kit for them?

Store enough supplies for your pet’s needs for at least three days, including food, water, and related items such as kitty litter.

Q: What’s the difference between an “all hazards” disaster supplies kit and a WMD disaster supplies kit?

There is no difference between these kits, except that certain manufacturers may apply different labels to them.

The recommended list of disaster supplies that the Red Cross recommends that people have for any type of disaster can be found on

Q: Do you recommend that people have a gas mask?


The most current advice provided by the Centers for Disease Control is that gas masks are not recommended for the general public. They need to be fitted carefully for each face, and there are different kinds of masks for different types of agents.

Having or using a gas mask may offer a false sense of security.

Q: Does the Red Cross recommend that people stock up on certain antibiotics?


An antibiotic is a chemical that is used after exposure to a disease-causing organism.

Health professionals are reluctant to or will not prescribe antibiotics before exposure (prophylactic treatment) because that further increases the problem of mutations of organisms to be resistant to antibiotics. If an organism develops resistance to common antibiotics, then more powerful antibiotics may have to be used instead.

More powerful antibiotics often have serious side effects, sometimes worse than the actual disease. In addition:

Antibiotics are specific as to the type of organism they work for. You don't know which one to take until you know what you have been exposed to. Usually the lay-public cannot tell what one has been exposed to. A doctor has to determine that, usually through tests.

Most antibiotics have a limited shelf-life, and some require refrigeration and/or special storage.

Antibiotics are not useful for virus-caused illnesses. Viruses are different types of organisms and are not affected by antibiotics.

The Red Cross only recommends that people have antibiotics on hand that their physician has prescribed for specific conditions. Further, the person receiving the antibiotics should get advice from the physician or a licensed pharmacist on how to store and maintain antibiotics, as well as how to use them.

Q: What about Potassium Iodide (KI?)

Potassium Iodide has been shown to provide some limited help in preventing the body from absorbing certain types of radioactive particles which could inhibit metabolism through action of the thyroid gland.

The Centers for Disease Control does not recommend that individuals stock up or take Potassium Iodide in advance of an attack. This is because Potassium Iodide is only useful for certain types of radioactivity, and can also be harmful if used improperly, by children, or by people with chronic or undiagnosed thryoid disease. Consult your physician if you have questions about this chemical.

Questions related to personal disaster preparedness

Q: Do I need to evacuate my home?

Only if local government officials advise to do so. Sometimes, it may be safer to stay at home and shelter-in-place.

Q: Tell me more about the personal communications plan that you recommend?

The greatest cause of anxiety when disaster happens is not knowing how the people you care about are doing. It is important to list all telephone numbers as well as e-mail addresses for everyone that you will need to notify in an emergency.

Also, designate someone who lives out-of-town to be the central contact, in case those you care about are in different places when disaster strikes.

Q: How do I know which radio station to listen to get information?

These days, all radio stations are required to carry “Emergency Alert Messages” when local officials issue them.

For continuous updates, select a radio station that you know carries regular and “live” news broadcasts, rather than taped interviews.

Q: If I live in a high-rise, do I respond the same way as if I lived in a home?

Listen to the advice of local government officials. If advised to shelter-in-place, select an interior room on the floor that you are on in which to take refuge. If advised to evacuate, follow the advice of local government officials or building management.

Questions related to school/business disaster preparedness

Q: How can schools prepare for the unexpected?

The American Red Cross has produced the Facing Fear: Helping Young People Deal With Terrorism and Tragic Events curriculum which is on line at These lessons and activities will help educators deal with student's concerns, as well as practice drills on "reverse evacuation" if required.
We do not have information on how schools, colleges, or universities can develop disaster plans. Please consult the school board or local emergency management.

Q: What should you do if you hear about an emergency and your children are in school?

Schools should have an emergency plan - check with your children’s school now to find out what the plan is.
If an emergency happens while children are in school, often the school will hold children until the area is safe and parents or a designated adult can pick them up.
Parents should not drive to school to pick up children unless advised to do so; driving on the roadways may put you into harm’s way.

Q: How do I find out what kind of plan my place of employment has?

Ask your supervisor or facilities manager. If your employer does not have a plan, suggest that they read the “Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry” (A5025) which is available for downloading from for more information.

Q: Should I take a disaster supplies kit to work with me?

It is a good idea to have essential disaster supplies in all places where you spend significant amounts of time.

General Questions

Q: Isn’t preparing for an unspecified emergency a waste of time? Do you think the government is helping or hurting the American people with these types of messages?

Any type of disaster can happen anytime, such as an earthquake, fire, flood, or tornado. We think it is important to be prepared for any event, regardless of the cause.

While issuing these types of messages may cause some people to be concerned or anxious, we think that disaster preparedness actions as recommended by the Red Cross and government agencies are helpful.

Q: How can we handle fears and concerns of children?

The American Red Cross has resources available that can help children deal with terrorism and tragic events. See the lessons and activities titled Facing Fear: Helping Children Deal With Terrorism and Tragic Events. These materials are available to be downloaded from

Q: How do I stay calm?

Develop a plan on how to respond with your family, including loved-ones who will be concerned about you but who do not live with you.

Include an emergency communications plan. If a disaster happens, follow your plan.

Knowing that you know what to do and doing it is the best way to remain calm.

Questions about specific hazards

Q: Do I stay low to the ground during a chemical attack?

Follow the advice that local government officials will provide on the radio and television.

The response will vary, depending on the chemical in question.

Q: Tell me about smallpox, ricin, and other specific biological or chemical hazards.

Please refer to the web sites at or for specific information. It is okay for the Red Cross to download and retransmit information from these web sites; however, it is important to make it clear what the source of the information is - a government agency, not the Red Cross.

Q: What is a “dirty bomb” and what is the radius of the effects of a “dirty bomb”?

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a “dirty bomb” is a radiological weapon which combines conventional explosives and radioactive material.

This bomb is designed to scatter dangerous and sub-lethal amounts of radioactive material over a general area. There is no way to estimate in advance the area that will be affected by such a bomb.

Q: What’s the difference between a chemical and biological threat?

One type of threat is caused by a chemical agent and the other is caused by an organism, like virus or bacteria, which can make you sick. Exposure to certain chemicals and biological agents can cause death.

It is likely you will know very quickly if there is a chemical agent attack, but you may not know that there has been a biological attack immediately.

The protective actions remain the same: go indoors for safety, and listen to local television and radio for advice on what to do.

Q: What about decontamination if you think you’ve been exposed?

If there has been an actual or suspected exposure to a chemical or radiological agent, local government officials will set up screening and decontamination locations. This is a place where you will be screened for any agent you may have been exposed to.

If contamination is determined, you will be escorted through a decontamination process. You will then be given some form of identifier that indicated you are now free of contamination.

Do not return to a contaminated area until it is determined safe by authorities, because you may have to go through the decontamination process again. If you have further questions about decontamination procedures, please contact your local emergency management agency or local fire department.

Q: Should I fill up the bathtub with water?

We recommend that you have your disaster supplies kit fully stocked, including at least three gallons of water per person in your household. It is alright to fill the bathtub with water IF you select the bathroom as the room in which to “shelter-in-place.” Then you can use that water for bathing (not for drinking).

Q: What if I come in contact with a chemical or biological agent? Can I go in the room selected to “shelter-in-place” with the rest of my family?

If you come into contact with a chemical or biological agent, get immediate medical attention. Avoid exposing others to the potential hazard.

Q: What do I do if I suspect an attack?

Call local law enforcement authorities immediately to report it.

Q: Do I need to buy a generator?

Unlike a severe storm, it is not likely that an attack using a chemical or biological agent will cause power disruption; so you will not likely need a generator.

If you do choose to obtain a generator, consult the fact sheet on safe usage of a generator at:

Q: What will trigger a move to the “severe” level in the homeland security system?

A credible threat with information about an impending attack or an actual attack will trigger it.

Q: What if I’m in a mall or store during an attack -- where do I need to go?

Find a place where you can listen to local radio or television. Follow the advice of local government officials.

If you are advised to shelter-in-place, follow the instructions on the Red Cross shelter-in-place directions as if you were at a business.

If you are advised to evacuate, follow instructions provided on the radio or television.

Q: What if I’m in my car? Is there anything I can do?

If local officials are advising to “shelter-in-place,” follow the instructions on the Red Cross shelter-in-place directions for what to do if you are in a vehicle. If you are advised to evacuate, follow instructions provided on the radio.

Q: If I hear of an attack, what are the most important things I need to do in the first three or five minutes?

As every situation is different, requiring different actions depending on the problem, we advise that you should put your personal disaster plan into action. Listen to directions of local officials on radio and television and follow their advice.

It is always a good idea to get your Disaster Supplies Kit and move to the room you selected in which to “shelter-in-place” and listen to local television and radio for more directions there.


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