Tornado Season - Preparing Your Students, Staff & School

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Growing up, many of us became well-practiced in tornado drills and know exactly what to do when we hear the alarm.

At home, we go to the lowest floor and find a small center room under a stairwell or a hallway with no windows. We take refuge in our closets or bathrooms and hide in the tub. We get as close to the ground as possible, face down, and cover our head with our hands.

At school, teachers lead us in a single file line towards a designated area. We crouch low, hold our heads down, and protect the backs of our heads with our hands. We stay away from windows and go to different spaces including the gym, bathrooms, or hallways.

The key to safety is to be in a structurally sound building and space that is designed to withstand extreme wind events including tornadoes.

Some of the spaces normally used during extreme wind events can appear to be structurally sound, but may not always be when subjected to the loads from an extreme wind event. Below are examples of issues you and/or your facilities team can look for that may require a specialist review to resolve safety considerations.

Extreme Wind Event & Structural Vulnerabilities Self-Assessment
Take a look at the areas where your school takes shelter. If you answer “yes” to any of the questions below, your space may not be safe as you’ve assumed during an extreme wind event.

  1. Walls
    • Do you have walls taller than 10-12 feet?  
    • Is there a gap between the wall and roof so the wall is not connected to the structural roof?
    • Does the space share a wall with a room with a higher roof?
    • Are any of the walls exterior building walls?
  2. Above the Ceiling Tile
    • Do you have duct work going through the roof?
    • Are there natural gas and/or steam lines running above the space?
  3. Windows
    • Do you have direct line of sight to windows?
    • Do you have direct line of site to a door with glass/windows?
  4. Roof Framing
    • Are the roof beams supporting your roof 40 (+) feet long or longer?  

While this list is not intended to be all-encompassing, it can serve as a starting point as you evaluate your buildings and spaces prior to tornado season. Safety is important to everyone, but knowing which areas are safer can be difficult. Schools are designed with economy in mind, maximizing programmatic space for the dollars available. This efficiency serves the community well, but this means schools are not designed to be structurally robust enough to withstand the severe forces imposed on a building during a tornado. Taking a moment to have a trained engineer carefully assess the spaces available to seek refuge can make a real difference down the road.
 
We'll be sharing more information to help you work through the process in the weeks to come. If your school has any or all of these building conditions, stay tuned for this biweekly series intended to help walk you through identifying vulnerabilities and opportunities to improve safety during an extreme wind event:

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Onesty Friday is a structural engineer with Shive-Hattery Architecture-Engineering. Onesty works with schools and their stakeholders to engineer affordable solutions which best leverage their buildings for the benefit of the students, staff and community. Being a mother of two school-aged children, she enjoys creating functional, safe and engaging spaces for use by our children and communities. Onesty has designed many school additions, including FEMA and ICC-500 rated shelters.

Onesty Friday, SE, PE, LEED AP

Structural Engineer


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Karen Hardisty is a structural engineer with Shive-Hattery Architecture-Engineering. Karen works with schools to help identify structurally-sound solutions for their projects whether it’s new construction, an addition or renovation. She strives to create safe learning environments for all students.

Karen Hardisty, SE, PE

Structural Engineer