NORMAN — In the wake of Norman’s April 13 tornado, the Norman school district is re-evaluating its response protocol.
The primary focus of revisions will be communication tools and procedure.
“Any time you have an event like this, as an organization we have a responsibility to go back and examine what went well and what our challenges were,” NPS Superintendent Joe Siano said. “There are certainly lessons to be learned from this.”
Overall, Siano said he was very proud of the response exhibited by the district’s staff and administration in a difficult situation.
“I really have to compliment our staff on all levels — administrative, teachers, transportation — for their collective response to what I think everyone recognized as a very stressful situation,” Siano said. “There was neither overreaction nor underestimation on anyone’s part, and generally, in terms of procedure and practice, things worked the way we would have hoped.”
The April 13 tornado was especially problematic for middle school students, as it touched down in Norman shortly after their dismissal, catching many bus drivers off guard.
Before the tornado’s touch down, 68 buses in the process of returning students home were told to return to the nearest school site immediately, to avoid reported heavy rains and hail.
Because of the storm’s unusually high speed and sudden turn for the worse, warning time for the greatest danger was shorter than usual, with less than 10 minutes between a tornado watch being issued and tornado sirens sounding at 4 minutes after 4 p.m., which Siano said was documented by the city.
“Communication became a tremendous challenge,” Siano said, describing how cell phone and land line connections were compromised by the storm’s impact and rendered unreliable.
“We itermittently lost connection with our sites, and the buses’ radio connection was both erratic and confused, with lots of different people on at once, all trying to report their respective situations.”
Since this experience, Siano said that a more streamlined emergency communication policy is now the district’s top priority, and previously trusted methods, such as a standing order to proceed to the nearest school, no longer will be used.
“We’ve already purchased new radios for the buses, equipped with GPS, which will be in place in August,” Siano said. “This way, we’ll know exactly where each bus is without their having to report it, and we’ll be able to pinpoint which buses are nearest the storm or event.”
The GPS radios also will eliminate an emergency command which could be too generalized. By pinpointing those buses directly affected by a storm, the district will be able to avoid sending otherwise unaffected buses back into a storm’s path as they try to return to a school site.
This new step will be supported by software the district already uses from Weather Decision Technologies, which provides specific, pinpoint locations of storms as they occur.
“Another communication change is that we have determined that all drivers need to stay off the radio until a command has been issued, and then make an assesment as to whether it’s right for them, based on their situation,” Siano said. “In all fairness, we want to give our drivers some flexibility, because, as we learned on April 13th, one direction doesn’t work for everybody.”
Siano said a major lesson he personally learned was to wait in issuing a districtwide notification to parents until all details of the situation were clear.
Using the district push message system, parents received notification when the buses were recalled to the nearest school site, but since some buses already were halfway into their route, some students already had been returned home, which was not mentioned in the notification.
“Due to the calls that were coming in, I made a judgment to quickly get information out to parents as opposed to waiting for all the data to be in place. In retrospect, there’s a lot to be said for a quick reaction, but I would revise that decision and wait until all the information was clear,” Siano said.
In all, technology is on the district’s side, with lots of helpful tools at its disposal, including direct connection to the National Weather Service information and close collaboration with the city’s Emergency Management Team, as well as push messaging.
“All of our pieces are there, and our staff worked very hard and very well to deal with as many aspects of the situation as could be controlled, but we learned a lot of lessons in the communication piece,” Siano said. “We’ve addressed the major concerns with communication and will continue to address more as time goes on.”