Experts: Schools can prepare successfully for disasters like tornadoes

Designated shelter, alignment with emergency management offices also key
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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

YARMOUTH, Maine—What can a school do when a monstrous EF5 tornado is barreling down upon it, packing winds of at least 200 mph? Follow through on what should already have been practiced many times, school security experts say.

Monday’s huge tornado in Moore, Okla., struck two schools. It pulled off the roof of Plaza Towers Elementary, where classes were still in session, and knocked down its cinder-block walls. News reports Tuesday afternoon said seven students died there as a result. Briarwood Elementary also was demolished, but it appeared Tuesday that everyone there was rescued.

“The reality is that schools that are located in Tornado Alley are much better prepared because they know the history and the annual threats. They treat drills and planning more seriously than perhaps schools in Cleveland or Chicago,” Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, told Security Director News.

Trump’s consulting firm, based in Cleveland, specializes in school security and emergency preparedness training.

“So the good news is they’re much better prepared, but the bad news is that while we strive for 100 percent perfection, it wouldn’t be called a disaster if we had that perfection,” he said. “It doesn’t minimize the losses, but the scenarios could be a lot worse.”

Paul Timm, president of RETA Security, an Illinois-based school security consultancy firm, said schools often think they are well prepared when they’re not.

“They used to put kids in the hallways during a tornado,” he said. But footage taken from schools in Joplin, Mo., where a deadly tornado also rated as EF5—the highest on the Enhanced Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale—struck in 2011, showed that the halls “became wind tunnels. The exterior doors flew open and there were car bumpers and farm equipment flying through.” Fortunately, school was not in session.

Both Trump and Timm noted that they did not know the details of the Moore schools’ preparedness plans and were speaking generally. Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce said in news reports Tuesday that every Moore school implemented its tornado shelter plan before the storm hit town.

Schools need to designate tornado shelters and label them, both with signs and on their evacuation plans. If a school doesn’t have a basement, then it should look at restrooms and locker rooms. If those aren’t roomy enough to contain all the students and staff, schools should next look for interior rooms that don’t have windows, Timm advised.

“They need to reinforce door hardware. That’s been available for years, but schools are just not aware of it,” he said.

Schools are busy with active-shooter drills, fire drills and lockdown drills, but a tornado “is so much more likely,” he said, noting that Illinois averages 54 per year. There are plenty of resources out there for schools, including free video training online that can help them get started, he said.

After the 1999 Columbine school shooting and even since the more recent Newtown tragedy, schools have done a good job working with local law enforcement agencies and fire departments about security and safety issues, but not so much with local emergency management offices, Trump said. They need to do so, he said.

“Most schools are not designed for safety, even the newer ones,” he said. School officials should work with emergency management offices, the Red Cross, first responders and other safety organizations and “get out in the weeds” and see what they need for physical safety that can be incorporated into the design of the building, especially in high-risk areas.

School officials also should know how to turn their school into an emergency shelter if needed, he said. “One of the things we often find with a wave of new principals is that they don’t even know their building is designated as an official community shelter,” he said.