There is no worse feeling, professionally or personally, than knowing that nothing you do while an incident is occurring can alter its outcome. In 2002 — as I felt the pressure on my ears, heard the roar of the tornado, then the shriek of tearing metal as the ventilators were ripped off the roof — that was what I was feeling. The terrified screams of the students and staff as I turned the corner to see water cascading into the hallway and the lights flickering are something I will never forget.
That moment inspired my passion for school safety. While there is nothing you can do during the storm to alter the outcome, there is a lot you can do prior to it that can prevent injuries and fatalities. Educators have a professional responsibility to do what they can to make sure they never face the nightmare of visiting a student in the hospital or going to a student’s funeral.
Tornadoes are among the most violent type of storms in the world, with winds in excess of 200 mph. They can wreak incredible havoc on schools and communities, and can change lives forever. The string of deadly tornadoes in the spring of 2011, followed by this year’s deadly season have had the positive side effect of generating renewed interest in tornado procedures for schools.
Conceptual decisions in emergency management should normally be made after careful study, thought and (when possible) with consideration for research and evaluation. There are established best practices for dealing with tornadoes that have helped K-12 campuses and other organizations prevent many mass casualty events. Great care should be taken before changing these well-established and successful practices based on a single crisis or several individual events. For example, with the nearly endless array of school designs, there are still many schools where the odds of students and staff being injured and killed would rise dramatically if hallways were eliminated as shelter areas.
This article is a refresher of current best practices for tornado sheltering for schools, as well as an explanation of why they have become best practices. It will also describe the process to change protocols so that such changes are made in a thoughtful and logical manner.
Nothing in this article should be construed as criticism of the administration of West Clark Schools for the decision to send students home before the storm, nor is this article intended to critique Joplin Schools for their decision to eliminate hallways as shelter areas. The bottom line is, no school children or staff members died, and that is a great blessing
This article is meant instead to serve as the basis for proper development of effective protocols based on research, and the development of a dynamic exercise program that will make you more comfortable in implementing those protocols.
1. Sending Students Home Poses Risks
The numerous reports and research from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicate best practices rest on one of two actions: the creation of a safe room in school buildings, or the use of best available shelters within existing facilities. Sending students home ahead of storms can create numerous risks that may result in injury or deaths for which schools may be held liable. Of course, this is based on the specific facts in each incident, but school administrators should consider several things prior to making the decision to send students home: