Indiana School Safety Specialist Steve Satterly Exhaustively Researches School Tornado Preparedness

I finally had time to read an article about a tornado that was photographed on Mars. I normally don’t research the topic of tornadoes so heavily that I would find out that a tornado (it was actually an 800 foot tall dust devil) rampaging around Mars. But Steve Satterly researches the topic enough to find such an article. You see, Steve has this thing about tornadoes. Actually, he has a thing about tornadoes and schools. In fact, Steve probably knows as much about schools and tornadoes as anyone I have ever run into – he has certainly written pretty extensively on the topic.

Steve has also been kind enough to take the time from his very busy schedule to write a guest blog for me on the concept of best available shelter in schools for tornado situations. He was also kind enough to do the bulk of the research and the writing for a 3,000 + word series of articles on school tornado preparedness we recently co-authored for Campus Safety Magazine. Then he was kind enough to offer to write a feature article for our next issue of the Safety Net, the free electronic journal we publish. He was also kind enough to offer to do the same for a white paper on school tornado preparedness we are working on for the Safe Havens website. All this while he is working on another feature article on recovery concepts for school tornado strikes for School Planning and Management Magazine.

Steve is a pretty busy guy since he serves as the Director of Safety and Security, as the Director of Athletics and as the Director of Transportation for a school corporation (district) in Indiana. He is even busier since he is also working on a certificate in Homeland Security in the evenings. We are very grateful that Steve has been so kind to donate his time to help us help others better prepare for school tornado strikes. Having survived an F3 tornado that ripped ventilation equipment off of the roof of his school when he was a new assistance principal, he is deeply committed to helping protect school employees and the students they serve from this deadly type of school crisis situation.

I am personally glad to know there is someone out there who has devoted so much time to the study of schools and tornadoes.  We are fortunate to have so many advocates for the children like Steve Satterly.   The world is becoming safer due to his awesome efforts.

What Does “Best Possible Shelter” Mean for School Tornado Sheltering?

Guest blog by Steve Satterly

Imagine for a moment that you find yourself in the ring with Iron Mike Tyson. He’s glaring at you, growling, and there is menace in his eyes. Then you hear the bell. Now, I don’t know about you, but even after 12 years in the Infantry, I would run like heck. As my mother didn’t raise any fools. I think that most rational people, faced with this situation, would do the same.

Now let’s change the scenario a bit. You have kids behind you, and you think he wants to hurt them (he doesn’t, but let’s go with it). You have the choice of running and leaving your children, begging for your (and their) life, or doing the best you can to protect them.

Facing a tornado is very similar to this analogy. On your own, you can most likely run for your life. Add people you are responsible for to the situation – and the decision-making changes. No one since Pecos Bill can defeat a tornado. All you can do is the best you can do. Given your responsibility to the people in your care, it is important you know what “the best you can do” is.

Many schools do not have the luxury of having a FEMA certified storm shelter with which to protect their children. They can be expensive – especially if you do a retrofit, alter existing construction to a new form, or build an addition. In FEMA publication P-431 “Tornado Protection: Selecting Refuge Areas in Buildings”, a process is described by which schools can identify “best available refuge areas”. These are areas in an existing building that have been designated by a qualified architect or engineer as a place likely to offer the greatest protection in the event of a tornado. Since these areas are not “safe rooms”, there is a possibility that people in those areas may be hurt or killed during a tornado. However, these “best available refuge areas” make such casualties less likely than in other areas of the building.

I am not an architect – nor am I an engineer. I have studied tornado mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery extensively. I have been through an EF3 tornado at a school myself. I have also seen for myself the damage to schools by EF4 tornadoes. This gives me the opportunity to let you know about some of the resources I have found, such as FEMA P-431. This can be found at http://www.fema.gov/library/ as well as other resources, which are free. If you cannot hook up with an architect or engineer, invite your local Emergency Management Director to walk through your building with you and use his or her expertise. Don’t do it alone – and don’t just take the word of some guy on the internet (even me!).

Take the time to do it right – because there is too much at stake.

Steve Satterly is the Director of School Safety and Transportation at the CSC Southern Hancock County in East Central Indiana. He is a survivor of an EF3 tornado on September 20, 2002. He is a certified Indiana School Safety Specialist with more than 75 hours of FEMA training. He is currently working toward a Master’s Certificate in Homeland Security through the School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. The author welcomes questions, other viewpoints and any comments at satterly.steve@att.net.

Recent Tornado Strikes Provide Clear Evidence that Schools Should Focus Appropriately on Tornado Preparedness

The deadly near miss in Indiana this week should provide a clear warning to all school and public safety officials. Tornadoes are deadly and no school in a region where they can occur should ignore them. As a number of states where tornadoes occur regularly still do not require tornado drills, there are still many schools without a written tornado sheltering procedure where no tornado sheltering drill has been conducted in years.

We have seen this many times in our school hazard and vulnerability assessment projects. In the last two years, we have had client districts in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Virginia that not only did not have written tornado sheltering procedures in place, but where some central office administrators also objected to the recommendations for tornado drills to be added. They felt that these types of drills would take up too much class time in relation to the likelihood that a tornado would hit an occupied school. Tornado strikes occurred near schools in all three regions within a year.

While most schools in tornado prone regions do have written plans and conduct tornado drills, we have seen more than one instance where a school district has conducted an active shooter full – scale exercise while tornadoes, hazardous materials incidents and earthquakes have been virtually ignored as a threat. We have seen many more instances where school officials were using gymnasiums or other open span areas for tornado shelters. We recommend that school administrators ask area public safety officials to visit their buildings and evaluate the shelter areas they are using.

The advanced planning and decisions by administrators in Henrysville, Indiana clearly saved many young lives this week. The results would not have been the same had they not taken tornadoes seriously.