Portable emergency shelters that won't break the bank

Reaction Systems has a product that does what it’s supposed to do, and no more


Whether you endorse global warming, the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan Calendar, or the coming Zombie Apocalypse (or not), it’s evident we are experiencing an unusual number of natural disasters in the form of earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes and hurricanes, and flooding caused by excessive rainfall.

These incidents pose serious problems for public safety agencies that have to contend with masses of suddenly homeless people — including their own employees — and even the destruction of their own headquarters. How do you quickly create shelters for people and operations?

FEMA attempted to remedy the problem after Hurricane Katrina with pre-purchased mobile homes and trailers, but that solution entailed a typical outlay of $67,000 per unit, the dedication of huge transportation resources to put them in place, and due to some bad workmanship and poor inspections, a lot of money wasted because of formaldehyde outgassing from the materials in the trailers. With the FEMA trailers, there was also the problem that some people found the trailers nicer than the quarters they had prior to the hurricane, and they didn’t want to move.

Inside the Reaction Exo shelter’s three-inch-thick insulated walls, there is 76 square feet of usable space, with four bunk beds that fold down from the inside walls. (Image courtesy of Reaction Systems, Inc.)
Inside the Reaction Exo shelter’s three-inch-thick insulated walls, there is 76 square feet of usable space, with four bunk beds that fold down from the inside walls. (Image courtesy of Reaction Systems, Inc.)

Reaction Systems, Inc. has an innovative solution to the emergency shelter problem with their two-component housing system. A Reaction Exo shelter is a tapered block with a 10 x 9 foot footprint, and stands 8.5 feet tall. Each shelter has two parts: the shell and a base. The shells can nest inside one another and thus be stacked for shipping; the bases stack like any other flat object. Two people can assemble an Exo shelter in two minutes, without tools. Inside the shelter’s three-inch-thick insulated walls, there is 76 square feet of usable space, with four bunk beds that fold down from the inside walls.

The shelters are pre-wired for 120-240V AC, with four standard wall receptacles inside and a ground fault interrupter circuit built in. Power has to come from an external generator or other source, but the units are intended to be set up in rows or circular arrangements so that multiple units can share a generator. There are options to replace one of the bunks with a desk or shelving, and there are multiple door configurations available. LED interior lights with low power requirements are built in. Several Exos can be linked together to form a single large unit, if desired. Although it adds 24 lbs. to the shelter weight, the shell can be made bullet resistant.

Instead of requiring a separate semi-tractor to deliver and place each unit, as a trailer would, a standard semi-truck can carry at least 20 collapsed Exo shelters, ready to be set up. The shelters are just that — shelters. Few people are going to want to remain in them indefinitely, but they will keep people warm, safe and dry until more permanent quarters are located. The shelters are intended to be set up, broken down, and reused multiple times, but when they do reach the end of their service life, all the materials are recyclable.

Each Exo shelter is $5,000. That’s not a trivial amount of money, but it’s much less than a trailer or a motorhome-based field operations vehicle that may not be able to get to where you need it, and could even be destroyed or incapacitated by the same event that caused the need for the shelters.

Although most cops will wince at the idea, I could see these deployed to the designated homeless camps that many cities have created, just to contain the problem and reduce sanitation problems from people choosing and making their own campsites. It’s an innovative solution and one that regional emergency management organizations should consider as a pooled resource. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and criminal justice professor. He has been writing on criminal justice technology issues for virtually every U.S. police publication and commercial website since 1988. Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, and a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

He can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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