AMS Annual Meeting, Part 2: School Safety

There have seen a number of presentations pertaining to school safety here at the AMS meeting. Yesterday afternoon, forensic meteorological engineer Tim Marshall presented a paper on his investigation of buildings destroyed in the Joplin tornado.

The schools did not fare well.

Recently, I posted the tornado safety rules for schools and these presentations drove home how important they are, especially never to shelter in a room with an outside wall (see above) or in structure with a wide free-span roof (i.e., a gym).

That said, some of the hallways (where the students should shelter) didn’t fare very well either.

I’ve previously stated that it is time to take a second look at public shelters. Perhaps this capability should be built into schools.

Gearing Up for Tornado Season 2012, Part 4: Schools

Protective position in schools. Please note heads and bodies face the wall. 

We’ll start with the safety rules for schools and I’ll make some comments after.

Every School Should Have a Plan

  • Develop a severe weather safety plan that ensures everyone will take cover within 60 seconds. Conduct frequent tornado drills including drills and provisions for all after-hours school-related activities.
  • Every school should be inspected and tornado shelter areas designated by a registered engineer or architect. Rooms with exterior walls should never be used as tornado shelters.
  • Basements offer the best protection. Schools without basements should use interior rooms and hallways on the lowest floor, away from windows or doors that lead directly outdoors.
  • Delay lunches or assemblies in large rooms if severe weather is anticipated. Rooms with large roof spans (e.g., gyms, cafeterias, auditoriums, swimming pools, theaters) offer little or no protection from tornado-strength winds.
  • Everyone should know the protective position (above) with elbows to knees and hands over the back of the head.
  • Every school should have a primary and secondary method for receiving a tornado warning with battery backup. 
  • If the school’s alarm relies on electricity, have a backup. 
  • Make provisions for those with disabilities, those in portable classrooms, and those outdoors. If all cannot be notified at once, notify them first.
  • Keep children at school beyond regular hours if a tornado warning is in effect at the time of dismissal.
  • School bus drivers should identify protective areas along each part of their route where they and their passengers can take cover if overtaken by a tornado.
  • Include properly designed tornado shelters when planning additions or new school buildings.  

The above rules are extremely well done and thought out. Hat tip to the American Red Cross and National Weather Service for creating and publishing them. Please make sure the principal at your child’s school has a copy of these.

A concern I have pertaining to schools is the growing trend, especially in the South, to dismiss schools when a tornado watch is issued or a “high risk” severe weather outlook is issued on a school day. Given that the South has the highest concentration of mobile homes, are we sending children from relatively safe schools to relatively unsafe mobile homes?

I recommend that schools give parents the option of picking up children early but also to use the school as a public shelter for students and parents after school hours in during tornado watches.