Thursday, March 3, 2016

School closings in tornado hazard situations, Part 2

So now, it should be clear that the NWS tornado forecast products ... from outlooks to warnings ... cannot be considered 100% accurate in all respects but will always involve uncertainty.  Furthermore,, decision-makers must consider other, non-meteorological issues in making their choices for how to react to a given situation so that it makes no sense to have some rigid rules for what choices to make.  Decision-makers must, therefore, invest considerable effort in "situation awareness" - they have to be deeply committed to staying informed about what is always an evolving situation.  The ultimate proper choice (i.e., the ex post facto "right decision") can change literally from one minute to the next as a tornado event unfolds.

With regard to school closings, what are some of the non-meteorological factors involved?  I make no claim to be able to list them all, here.  A big factor concerns the time of day.  If the school is closed on the basis of the forecast/warning, should the children stay at school or go home?  If the schools closes early and the children are sent home, will one or both of the parents of the children be at home?  What is the state of construction quality associated with the children's homes - do they live in a mobile home or a flimsy frame home or a multistory multiple family home?  How much time before an approaching tornado hits the school?  Are the kids in class or at recess outside or waiting for buses to take them home, with parents waiting for some of them (or on the way to pick them up)?

What sort of protection does the school actually offer and will it be adequate for a strong or violent tornado, should they be unlucky enough to be in the path of such a storm?  Does the school have a tornado plan?  Assuming they have one, has the school's tornado plan been vetted by structural engineers and/or meteorologists so that it's known to be the best they actually can do with the existing structure?  Is adequate shelter available anywhere in that school and who decided it was indeed adequate?  If the school has sheltering inadequacies, can they afford the necessary modifications, up to and including purpose-built tornado shelters?  I've seen plans at schools that are quite flawed and could eventually lead to a disaster.  I've seen schools that, without structural changes, have no local capable of occupation by the entire population of the school that would provide adequate shelter - only the least bad among all their sheltering options.

Have regular tornado drills been done at least once per year?  Are there means by which a school's decision-maker can be situation aware during a volatile weather situation - a weather radio and/or some internet connection that is being dedicated to weather situation awareness?  Is the decision-maker trained well enough to make such difficult life-and-death decisions in the face of a complex, rapidly-changing hazard?  Does the decision maker understand all the options and know their weak and strong points?

Moreover, as discussed in my first post on this topic, the tornado threat changes continually.  But the vulnerability of some segments of a school's population varies.  Physically handicapped people require more time to reach and enter shelter locations than the able-bodied, so they might have to commence their tornado precautions earlier than the rest of the group.  Has all that been accounted for in the tornado plan?

Although this discussion is about school closings in particular, many similar statements are valid for churches, businesses, shopping malls, recreation areas, entertainment venues, and so on.  For none of them is it trivially obvious what choices a decision-maker might have.  Schools in session have been  hit infrequently over the years, fortunately, but when they are hit while in session, the results can be tragic.  And the same goes for all the other public and private locations where people might be concentrated in relatively high numbers.  How many of those places have a tornado plan that's familiar to the occupants and easily implemented on relatively short notice?  How many even have a person designated as the tornado decision-maker (i.e., an emergency manager) who is trained and equipped for the task?  What if their designated decision-maker isn't there for some reason - do they have a properly prepared backup?

If the goal is to make the nation "weather ready", it's going to require a lot more than a few catchy slogans.  The certification of weather readiness requires some stringent milestones, not just a few simple requirements.  Being truly weather ready is a complex task that has many facets to be considered.  A knee-jerk response based on some simple criterion (such as being in a tornado watch or not) is not really demonstrating practical weather readiness or adequate preparation.


Vickie Doswell said...

very good points! If you remember Norman public schools build 3 schools in the 1980's that were 'underground' burmed buildings that weren't build with tornado safety in mind but for conservation and energy reasons. Those buildings were used by the city residents as hidey holes in bad weather but that didn't last long and they closed them to public use. That said in the early 2000's they decided to uncover the buildings to get more light!! They are concrete and surely will offer more safety then the newer buldings! I worry about closing schools and sending children many latch key kids! Who is there to watch over them? We need more storm safety education starting young as possible.

Troy Kimmel, Austin, TX said...

Another great and thoughtful piece (as usual) that should be required reading of all school personnel.

I'm afraid that as long as we look for the things that "feel good" (without considering whether they do a damn bit of good), this continues to be an issue.
What will BECOME an issue, though, is the day a violent tornado roars through a community and we find that a number of "latch key" kids were at home and were..
.. without adult supervision
.. in poorly constructed structures
.. or other things mentioned in the article.. etc... etc..
and these kids were injured and/or killed.

As usual, in my opinion, we do what "feels good" (and from a public relations standpoint, what "looks good").. all the while while being reactive instead of truly being proactive.

Hey, isn't that being "Weather Ready" Nation is supposed to be all about???