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.

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.