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Severe Weather Shelters for Winter and Beyond

Severe Weather Shelters for Winter and Beyond

Thus far, Washington’s winter has brought cold, harsh weather to communities statewide, including record-breaking lows. Severe weather events (i.e., extreme cold and/or heat, and poor air quality) are expected to become more frequent in the coming years because of climate change, and unsheltered individuals are particularly vulnerable to exposure.

Many local governments have developed some form of inclement weather service, such as overnight shelters and daytime warming or cooling centers, but these can vary. Having formally adopted policies and plans in place in advance of severe weather increases the likelihood that your community will have services available when the need is greatest.

This blog reviews common approaches for severe weather response, highlights formal policies and planning, and provides other helpful resources so that local government responses may be more predictable, consistent, and effective in the future.

Common Local Government Responses and Challenges

There are three responses that local governments often deploy to address extreme weather events: (1) overnight severe weather shelters; (2) daytime warming centers; and (3) daytime cooling centers. Although programs and responses vary slightly from municipality to municipality, there are commonalities and similar defining characteristics between them. Additionally, there are commonalities in the obstacles and challenges these inclement programs experience that are worth noting.

Severe weather shelters (overnight use)

Severe weather shelters operate overnight to keep vulnerable individuals out of inclement weather. They are typically activated when temperatures drop to the mid-to-low 30°F for a specified length of time, or when other weather conditions are occurring, such as a certain level of snow accumulation or cold weather accompanied by rain and/or wind. Hours of operations run from evening time (typically between 6—9 p.m.) until the morning (ranging between 7—9 a.m.), and these facilities may be activated from November until March.

Most shelters are located in and operated by nonprofit and/or faith-based organizations, although some municipalities utilize public facilities, such as community centers, which are then operated and staffed by nonprofits or faith-based groups.

Funding is primarily provided by public entities, but it may also include private donations. The City of Shoreline partners with the North Urban Human Services Alliance to operate a severe weather shelter when needed

Warming and cooling centers (daytime use)

Warming centers usually operate during the days when severe weather shelters have been activated. Warming centers operate typically between 6 a.m.—6 p.m., when severe weather shelters are unavailable. They are sometimes operated in coordination with nonprofit and/or faith-based organizations, but many municipalities will utilize public facilities, such as public libraries and community/activity centers, and staff these facilities with employees and/or volunteers. Examples of warming centers opened during the recent cold spell can be found in Federal Way and Snohomish County.

Cooling centers operate when the weather gets hot, usually in the summer months. Although the exact weather conditions that lead to their activation varies, indications of an upcoming heat wave and/or high temperatures reaching into high 90°F are common triggers. These centers have the same operational structure as warming centers, with the only notable difference being that they are typically operated anywhere between 9 a.m.—8 p.m. Examples of cooling centers include those activated by Thurston County and Kirkland during the 2021 heat wave.

Obstacles and Challenges for Severe Weather Shelter Plans

There are several challenges that local governments face when implementing their severe weather responses, many of which stem from limited advanced planning. Staffing is one such challenge, especially for overnight shifts. Despite having established partnerships and locations, organizations such as the Housing Solutions Center of Kitsap County have noted that “opening a shelter is also dependent on the shelter being fully staffed by volunteers for the night.”

Another challenge is that some severe weather shelters don’t have enough beds available while other locations get few occupants, which may be a result of a lack of communication about bed availability at these sites. Additionally, some areas don’t have nearby severe weather facilities, which makes it difficult for individuals to travel to distant locations and may also cause higher traffic at those facilities since they service a larger area.

Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the maximum capacity of these facilities, complicated the staffing and volunteer process, and increased operating costs.

Formal Policies and Planning

In order to make responses to severe weather more predictable and consistent, some local governments have proactively created programs and code provisions specifically pertaining to severe weather shelters.

This section highlights City of Spokane, changes made to its municipal code, and the resulting programs the city created. Other planning actions are also mentioned to illustrate different approaches that municipalities can take.

Case study: City of Spokane

To solidify a severe weather response that protects unsheltered individuals and under-resources households, Spokane created chapter 18.05.020, which details activation criteria for inclement weather centers, including (1) warming centers, (2) cooling centers, (3) safe air centers, and (4) emergency centers for civil emergencies or other extreme events. For example, warming centers are set to open when:

(T)he temperature is predicted by the National Weather Service to be 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower and designated low-barrier shelter space was at ninety percent (90%) capacity or greater during the previous night.

Their municipal code also designates the Community Health and Human Services Department as responsible for shelter policies and procedures.

Arguably the most significant piece of chapter 18.05.020 requires the city to plan for:

(E)mergency warming, cooling and safe air centers for the coming year, which shall provide details of the name(s) and location(s) of center providers and similar resources, the capacity and scalability of all emergency centers, by type and population(s) focus (if any), activation criteria, cost, funding source(s), partnerships and the communications and publicity plan to ensure that people who are vulnerable or are experiencing homelessness will know where they can obtain these services.

As can be seen on the city’s Extreme Weather Shelter and Resources website, Spokane has clear and well-established plans for the facilities, operators/staff, food/meal providers, and public communications for their winter shelters, safe air centers, and cooling centers. Additionally, the winter weather shelter information includes which populations the shelters serve, their capacity, operations, and other notes, such as if they are low barrier or when the contract is executed. This level of detail and planning is likely to reduce some of the common difficulties and obstacles mentioned earlier in this blog.

There are also other municipalities that have code provisions regarding severe weather shelters, such as Kelso and Lynnwood, which address the determination of severe weather events, permitting for severe weather shelters, and other regulations and requirements for their operations.

Incorporating Severe Weather Approaches in Formal Plans

One approach to incorporating a severe weather response into formal plans is through a climate action plan. Whatcom County’s Climate Action Plan sets forth a strategy to create “resilience hubs” — or public facilities that “can serve as life-saving cooling centers.” Similarly, the Climate Action Plan for the Territories of the Yakama Nation provides strategies and objectives to increase the availability of cooling centers, including an objective to “work with cities, schools, and churches to ensure availability of public emergency shelters and cooling centers and consider offering additional spaces at tribal facilities if necessary.”

Another approach is by incorporating the severe weather response into a municipality’s comprehensive emergency management and/or hazard mitigation plan. Seattle’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan lays out action items, such as developing and maintaining a list of locations and the capacity of current and potential warming centers, and also assigns the Emergency Operations Center with the responsibility of public messaging and planning for shelter types, including severe weather shelters, cooling centers, and warming centers. Everett’s Hazard Mitigation Plan identifies the need for more heating and cooling centers and for informing the public about these centers, names the responsible agency, and provides benefits, costs, timeline, and priority of these actions.

Lastly, although not a formal plan, Tacoma’s Climate Change Resilience Study includes a section that maps out the city’s cooling centers (i.e., public library branches) to identify their levels of accessibility.


With weather trends set to become more severe and more frequent, unsheltered individuals will see more days of both extreme cold and extreme heat. Local governments can prepare for these events through formal plans, procedures, and/or changes to a municipal code. An inclement weather response can also be addressed in a municipal plan for climate action, hazard mitigation, or comprehensive emergency management. Importantly, severe weather responses should be effective, consistent, and predictable for the vulnerable populations being helped.

Here are some additional programs, guides, and resources to help municipalities interested in developing an inclement weather response plan:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Justin Sharer

About Justin Sharer

Justin Sharer joined MRSC in July 2021 as a Public Policy intern. He is pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is specializing in environmental policy.

Justin has previous experience interning in the California Central Coast region with both the City of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay Economic Partnership where he worked on topics including climate action, sustainability, and equity.