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Center for Public Health Preparedness

Special Medical Needs Shelters

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Hurricane Katrina, which brought mass destruction to New Orleans and the Gulf coast region of Mississippi in August 2005, brought to light the deficiencies in mass shelter care, particularly for special needs populations (ie: chronically ill, physically disabled, mentally ill), referred to as "special medical needs" in this course. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became evident that different accommodations were necessary to shelter those with special medical needs. In 2010 FEMA issued Guidance on Planning for Integration of Functional Needs Support Services in General Population Shelters. States and local governments are currently working on integration plans. However, in some instances, such as large scale disasters, Special Medical Needs Shelters may be the best option for providing care for those with special medical needs.

Many people who are displaced during a disaster or emergency situation seek refuge in shelters, which temporarily protect disaster victims by providing support services, such as food, comfort, information, and a place to sleep until it is safe to return home. However, most "general" shelters are not designed to easily or properly assist those people who have medical issues. A special medical needs shelter is designed to serve the needs of people who have certain physical, mental, or emotional impairments or disabilities and who need assistance with medical and/or personal care, but do not require nursing home, hospital, or other institutional care.

This course seeks to appeal to a national audience. Therefore, this course was written with general information about special medical needs shelters with the intent to introduce people to the concept of such shelters, as well as educate users on the operational and administrative aspects of such shelters.


This course is intended for anyone who may volunteer or be assigned to work in a special medical needs shelter during a disaster response, as well as local and state government employees and local leaders who may be involved with planning such a shelter. This may include medical and health professionals, state and local health department personnel, public health professionals, state and local emergency response personnel, and members of volunteer organizations, such as Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), or other volunteers.


After completing this course, you will be able to:

  • Describe the objectives of a Special Medical Needs Shelter (SMNS)
  • List the various types of shelters that may be available during an emergency
  • Identify SMNS admission and exclusion criteria
  • Describe the basic operations of an SMNS
  • Name and describe some of the various functional roles in an SMNS
  • Describe triage and admission processes and criteria
  • Understand some of the health, safety, and special issues you may encounter in an SMNS
  • Understand shelter deactivation and closing procedures
  • Describe the planning process for an SMNS

Technical Requirements

This course is built to XHTML 1.1 specifications. A modern web browser such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox is required to view the pages.


Originally launched October 2009. Updated December 2015.


Estimated time for this course is 2 ½ to 3 hours


Free and open to the public


We would like to recognize James Raucci and Sarah-Anne Roberts of the New York State Department of Health, NYS Functional and Medical Needs Sheltering Group, and Belinda McClellan, Registered Nurse Consultant/Manager for Statewide Special Needs Shelter Services, Office of Public Health Nursing, Florida Department of Health for their assistance and expertise in helping to develop this course.

This course was written by Andria M. Cimino, founder of Leapfrog Communications LLC, and Kristin Murphy, Web-Based Training Coordinator for the University at Albany, Center for Public Health Preparedness.


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