Oklahoma's Safe Schools 101: Recruiting Assessment Teams for Determining Best Available Refuge Areas

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Monday, 5 January 2015
Andrea Dawn Melvin, Oklahoma Mesonet/Oklahoma Climatological Survey, Norman, OK; and K. A. Kloesel, R. Smith, and B. White

Handout (19.9 MB)

May 2013 will be remembered for the widespread tornadic damage across Oklahoma. Two schools were destroyed and another 54 schools sustained damage. In the two destroyed schools, staff and students had to be extricated from the rubble. Many were severely injured and seven students died at Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, OK.

The deaths of these seven students led to discussion about the safety of students at schools during tornadic weather events. Most schools do not have safe rooms. Without engineered safe rooms, school officials are left with determining the safest places in buildings to use as refuge (shelter) areas. Historically, school officials created their refuge plans with little knowledge of construction. To receive professional expertise, schools would need to pay an engineering firm to assess buildings. This cost was not included in tight district budgets. With parents concerned that schools might not be the safest place for their children, district officials needed expert help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management (OEM) teamed up to crate a pilot program called Safe Schools 101. The purpose of Safe Schools 101 was to train teams of diverse professionals to visit schools and determine areas of buildings that provide good, better, and best levels of protection. The assessment teams were made up of engineers, architects, meteorologists, emergency mangers, building inspectors, fire marshals, and school officials. Individuals volunteered their time to participate. FEMA funded the pilot program to review schools located in 6 counties under the federal disaster declarations from May 2013. The counties were Oklahoma, Canadian, Cleveland, Pottawatomie, Lincoln, and McClain.

Each team participated in the “FEMA Refuge Evaluation and Safe Room Design 101” course. The course was 2 days of classroom instruction and 1 day on-site at a school. Subject matter experts were contracted by FEMA to serve as the course instructors. OEM staff handled the logistics: registering workshop participants, selecting school sites, obtaining school building blueprints, taking photos at the school, assigning participants to teams, receiving and reviewing assessment reports from teams, and creating an executive summary of the assessment for school districts.

Participants learned to use the FEMA 361 checklist to score areas in the school based on construction materials and connection strength between materials. A low score on the FEMA 361 checklist indicated a better refuge option than areas with a higher score. Once the use of the 361 checklist was understood, each team was given a set of pictures from inside and outside the school, the current school weather shelter plan, and all available blueprints from original construction through remodels and additions. The team then determined which areas to score with the 361 checklist. Teams visited their school to verify the information from the blueprints. A school official – principal or facility manager accompanies each team to unlock doors, provide roof access, provide ladders, and answer questions.

All teams reconvened to share what they saw at their individual sites. Teams left the course with a homework assignment to create a report indicating any areas that should not be used for refuge, new areas than could be used but hare not currently used by the schools, ideas for hardening areas to improve hazard resistance (e.g., shutters over windows, stronger doors at the end of hallways, etc.), and potential locations for future FEMA 361 compliant safe rooms. OEM staff wrote an executive summary of each teams reports and provided the summary to district officials.

With the success of Safe Schools 101 additional FEMA regions are interested in duplicating the program. OEM has completed the initial pilot. OEM now has the freedom to expand the program to all 517 Oklahoma school districts and their 1800 school buildings. Safe School 101 has many challenges ahead including how to make the program work largely relying on volunteers.