The Norman Transcript

June 18, 2013

Norman fire chief says public storm facilities don’t offer adequate protection

By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Oklahomans are always going to need a safe place to take cover when severe weather hits, as it so often does during the spring and summer months, but officials have found many problems tied to public shelters.

While there are currently several public shelters in Norman, residents should not count on those to keep safe — at least not for long.

The plan is to cease operation of all community shelters by June 30, Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim said because those public shelter facilities do not provide adequate protection against strong winds and many are too far away when you need them.

“I can’t stress enough that these facilities are not designed to withstand high winds,” Fullingim said. “If you’re leaving a traditionally built home, you’re putting yourself at risk that’s actually no safer than the place you just left.”

There also are plenty of other problems of safety linked to the public shelters.

Overcrowding at public shelters is one of those problems. Sometimes there are more people seeking shelter in buildings than the amount of space available, which can lead to some people being left outside, Fullingim said.

As for pets taking your pets to the public shelter? Bad idea.

Fullingim said one of the rules is pets are not allowed at storm shelters.

“One of the issues we deal with is anxiety of the animals,” he said. “A lot of times they won’t be friendly to each other and won’t be friendly to people.”

The fire chief said he’s not saying all pets are mean, but in situations where the animals are anxious, they may become aggressive. Also, some people are afraid of animals and some animals are afraid of people, he said.

Either way, taking your animal to a shelter full of strangers who also may be trying to smuggle their pets in, all while anxiety and stress is high, could be trouble waiting to happen.

And while many don’t want to leave their pets at home because they are often considered to be a member of the family, the nation saw just how resilient pets can be during severe weather events.

Some Moore residents’ pets were found in the rubble alive hours, and even days, after the storm. Many animals also were taken to temporary animal shelters where they sat waiting to be reunited with their owner or family.

Another problem with the public seeking shelter during storms is when they show up to places, they think they will be safe.

Some people think they will be safe if they just go to a fire station, but the fire station is typically no safer than your home, Fullingim said.

Some fire stations have safe rooms, but they are only big enough for the five people who are working there. Also, if firefighters are already out responding to calls, the doors will be locked, he said.

Many also may want to go to the closest school to seek shelter, but some schools with shelters — including Alcott and Whittier middle schools — only allow the school children to use it. The general public is not allowed to shelter with the children.

“The best thing to do is to assure a place that is best available for your use,” Fullingim said.

Time is also a factor in seeking shelter. Fullingim said many people wait until outdoor sirens go off to head to a shelter, which doesn’t give them enough time.

“An inherent problem is that they don’t have enough time to get there and they’re not the only ones who had that idea,” he said.

Many saw the problems caused by trying to drive away or trying to drive to a public shelter last month to escape the storm’s path. Massive congestion on the roadways put many at risk and caused loss of life when tornadoes touched down in El Reno and the metro area May 31.

With the National Weather Service consistently publishing thunderstorm and tornado watches, Fullingim said it’s good to stay weather aware and be prepared before the storm hits.

“Be in a place well in advance of a storm developing in your area,” Fullingim said. “If you don’t have a personal shelter to go to, you need to consider your options of safer places to go,” he said.

The best thing to do is make a plan, he said. Much like the fire department talks about exits drills and everybody makes a fire plan, that plan needs to include other kinds of emergency situations as well.

Some of the basic guidelines for storms include seeking a place on the lowest level inside your home in a room with no windows.

“You need to be placing as many walls as possible between yourself and outside,” Fullingim said.

If you find yourself traveling during potentially severe weather, he said, monitor the conditions, listen to the radio in the car and stay in touch with media outlets with relevant weather information.

“If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t really know where to go, get off the highway and find a structure to seek shelter in,” he said.