The Norman Transcript

June 20, 2013

May tornadoes prompt heightened scrutiny of school shelters

By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Barely a month since their occurrence, the tornadic events of May have joined the ranks of high-profile school emergencies as a source of heightened scrutiny on schools’ emergency preparedness.

Events like the Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, or the more local April 2012 tornado in Norman, have dramatically altered priorities in school design and district procedures, with May making certified storm shelters in schools a new concern.

“What gets put in school

facilities is reflective of priorities at the time,” Superintendent Joe Siano said. “In 1990, I was the principal of a brand new school and it didn’t have a secured vestibule entry or storm shelters — it just wasn’t a priority to communities at that time. For a new school now, that would be unthinkable.”

In light of the tragic loss of life at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary, public discourse has focused on reprioritizing the installment or addition of certified storm shelters in school facilities as an urgent initiative, and — as with so many other school initiatives — the deciding factor will be funds.

“From a construction standpoint, the Norman district will have to either incorporate storm-fortified rooms into new construction projects or build additions onto older schools,” Siano said. “If there’s a major revenue infusion from the state, the Norman district has the infrastructure to begin work within weeks of receiving it. Otherwise, we have to build storm shelter projects into our overall capital improvement plans, which include other priorities. We can’t forego standing priorities like instructional facilities or secured vestibule entries for storm shelters in capital projects.”

The possibility of allocating $500 million in state funds for school storm shelters has been discussed in the Legislature, but given the high pricetag of a FEMA-certified shelter, Siano said this sum would likely be far too little to make a significant statewide impact.

In the meantime, districts like NPS are continuing an ongoing process of collaboration, review and revision of storm protocol to ensure the safety of its students, faculty and staff in a weather event, earning the district National Weather Service StormReady certification in December.

“Not every school in the district has a FEMA-certified shelter, but even if we did have storm-ready rooms, insufficient procedure and communication would mean a lot of challenges and dangers,” Siano said.

The NPS district bases its protocol on facility-specific sheltering plans that are reviewed and revised annually, and which students practice multiple times a year. Issuing storm procedures is based on the district’s top-tier communication and weather awareness tools.

“Storm shelter plans are developed based on each individual building, with experts coming in from outside the district to evaluate the safest locations for students to shelter,” Siano said. “Lincoln, for example, has a basement, but it isn’t fortified and the building could collapse into it in the event of a tornado, so people in the school don’t shelter there.”

NPS Community Relations Director Shelly Hickman said part of the district’s weekly operations involve a teleconference between Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Roger Brown and the National Weather Service. In the event of severe weather, Brown has direct access to NWS personnel for up-to-the-minute information to aid with decision-making.

“Our proximity to the NWS really equates to us having direct access, and we very much value and are grateful for this partnership,” Hickman said.

Additionally, the district keeps parents informed of storm procedure implementation via the Infinite Campus emergency notification system, NPS website, mobile app and social media. For internal communications, the district implemented use of district-wide two-way radios to ensure contact isn’t lost due to cell, phone line or power failure.

“On May 20, cell phones were useless, land lines and computers were compromised, and with a district in storm procedures, that means we then have 22 isolated buildings. As part of storm procedures, every principal and bus driver gets on their radio, and at the Administrative Services Center, we can hear everything going on and issue general commands or individual commands as needed while staying on top of what’s going on where,” Siano said.

As the district looks to the next bond issue, Siano said a major three-part study of the area demographics, facilities’ needs and safety updates that is currently in progress will take storm sheltering into account.

“This work has to be fluid and ongoing; situations change, buildings get additions, procedures and assessments have to be updated constantly. It's never finished,” Siano said.