Planning For Site and Area Evacuations Takes Careful Consideration

It is common that evacuations are required at many types of incidents. The need for the incident command (IC) to require an evacuation can occur at any time. Conducting an evacuation needs to be part of every IC’s skill set. The IC must be able to determine the size and scope of each incident, and determine if an evacuation is needed.

When discussing evacuation, it’s helpful to put terms with the type of evacuation required. Site evacuations are those limited to the area of an incident. The area evacuation is conducted around the larger area of in incident, say, several city blocks. There are also large-scale evacuations, a significant area or large portion of a community, and mass evacuations, the evacuation of an entire community or almost an entire community.

This article discusses considerations and implementation strategies for area and site evacuations.

Common Operational Concerns

There are several common concerns that will need to be addressed for any type of evacuation. These can be preplanned for various types of evacuations. This will allow the IC to make quick and timely decisions. These common evacuation concerns are: evacuation area, routes, duration and collection centers.

Evacuation area. The IC must first determine the evacuation area. This area may be determined by the IC or a planning section for larger incidents under the National Incident Management System. The easiest method is to use boundaries that are already known geographical boundaries such as streets, rivers, or well known locations. This allows both citizens and responders to quickly determine the area. It will also allow the public information officer (PIO) and media to provide accurate information to the public. If possible, a map overlay of the evacuation area should be provided so that there’s a clear message of the area.

Routes. The IC will need to determine evacuation routes for those leaving the area. This task can be delegated. It will need to be quickly developed and communicated to the public. It’s important that people know the routes to safely leave the area. If this information is not provided, those leaving the area may end up causing traffic jams, or make the situation worse by driving through areas that should be avoided. This task may be delegated to law enforcement since it will also need to know the route to ensure that traffic control is provided. In addition, this information will also need to be provided to the PIO for quick delivery to the media.

Duration. It may be difficult to initially determine the duration that evacuees may be displaced; however an IC should be able to provide a general guideline to the public. This will be one of the first questions asked by those being evacuated. A rough rule of thumb is up to two hours for a small site evacuation and four or more hours for an area evacuation. These times are only guides and evacuees will need to be informed on a regular basis by the PIO. If this information is not provided, the evacuees will be contacting the media for information and that could be problematic for the IC.

Collection centers. Once the area, routes and duration have been determined, the need for a collection center will need to be assessed. The collection center is a location where evacuees will be safely relocated. For both site and area evacuations, the collection center will need to be an area in close proximity to the incident and provide some comfort to the evacuees. For longer duration incidents requiring an area evacuation, the location for the collection center should allow for bathrooms and facilities where approximately 100-200 people can remain comfortably. With longer duration incidents, the Red Cross or other local agency may be able to deliver food and refreshments to the center. As with evacuations, the IC can delegate the oversight for the collection center, but the IC will need to remain in communication with this person.

Smaller Site Evacuations

A site evacuation is the most common type of evacuation that an IC will undertake. Site evacuations are generally limited to the site of the incident. These are often the result of a major fire, a localized hazardous materials spill, or a bomb or terrorist threat.

These evacuations are limited to the site of the incident and those occupancies directly adjacent to the site. Occupants are evacuated from their residence or business and moved to a safe area in the nearby neighborhood. Often this may be as simple as moving occupants across the street. Since these evacuation times are often limited to few hours, there’s not a major concern for feeding or housing evacuees. However, during inclement weather or in the winter, ensuring protection from the elements is a vital concern. In some cases, depending on the time of day, people may wish to leave the area on their own to take care of personal business.

The concerns for the IC with a site evacuation:

  • Ensure that evacuees are collected and moved upwind for an evacuation resulting from a fire or hazardous materials incident.
  • Determine if any security is needed. This would be a concern if occupants left valuable items inside the structure. Often when buildings are evacuated for a bomb/terrorist threat, people often leave purses, computers or briefcases. Since the time frame is often of limited duration, this may not be a major concern.
  • Ensure that none of the evacuees needs anything in the structure, such as medications. Since they may not be allowed back inside, the concern would be with anyone who may need medications, such as insulin or baby formula.
  • The number of occupants and where they are relocated to must be conveyed to the IC or their designated evacuation manager.
  • Planning for pet owners: Should they take pets? Will their pets be safe?

Larger Area Evacuations

Area evacuations are larger in scale and may involve several or more city blocks. These types of evacuations involve more people, and a rule of thumb is to expect about 100 to 200 people. With area evacuations, there’s an increase in complexity because of more evacuees, the relocation site and the incident itself. Area evacuations will impact people who may be unaware of a problem because they may be blocks away from the incident, at work or returning home to find an ongoing evacuation.

Since these incidents are larger and more complex, evacuees may be unable to return to their home or work for some time. Evacuation of several city blocks doesn’t take a lot of time to complete. It’s relatively easy to divide the evacuation zone into four areas and assign people to either go door to door or make announcements while driving through the areas.

It’s important that the people assigned to the task of evacuation know several things. Depending on the time frame, they should know the following:

  • Why is there an evacuation?
  • Special instructions before evacuating, including: bringing identification, medications, shutting down stoves, removing flammable materials from the area, etc.
  • Where should they go (collection locations)?
  • How should they get there and what route to take? • How long to expect to be gone? • How will they be notified to return?
  • What to do about pets? If there’s no direction people will take their pets, and may also do so even if told to leave their pets.
  • How to let responders know they have left their home, such as tying a white cloth on the front door. This will prevent wasted time rechecking homes.

As the incident begins to increase in both scope and complexity, the IC will likely be moving to a unified command (UC) structure. Since the IC will need to coordinate several key things that involve other organizations, the UC structure allows for decisions to be made in a more collaborative manner and better use the system resources. People assigned to the UC should be able to make key decisions for their respective organizations. Some key people who may be utilized in a UC structure would be representatives from fire, law enforcement, public works and the school system.

These decisions will include: determining collection locations and shelters; developing a PIO; and notifying evacuees when they may return to occupancy.

Site and area evacuations are a common occurrence. However, the incident isn’t over until all the evacuees are returned safely to their homes. Time spent preplanning for these types of evacuations will ensure that anyone in the IC role will be effective and also provide for proactive leadership of the incident.

About the Author
James Sideras is a division chief for South Dakota’s Sioux Falls Fire Rescue and is a 25-year veteran of the fire agency. He can be contacted at This article was reprinted with permission by Emergency Management magazine.