Tornado Preparedness Planning

Early spring begins “tornado season” in the United States, which means that it is time to evaluate emergency plans and prepare for these deadly and costly storms. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), there are approximately 1,200 tornadoes throughout the United States annually. Many of them cause significant property damage and, depending on their strength and duration, a number of deaths – 68 deaths were reported last year, but the fatality rate has often been much higher. Moreover, although tornadoes cannot be prevented, an effective planning process can help reduce risk significantly and at least partially mitigate the property damage and other adverse consequences even during the most catastrophic of such events.

In the United States, the first step in determining the level of threat, and the appropriate response to it, is to gather enough information to determine the location of the most tornado-prone areas of the country and the frequency of these severe storms in such areas. Fortunately, the NWS and its Storm Prediction Center produce numerous products that: (a) help identify tornado activity anywhere in the United States; and (b) help emergency planners in every corner of the country understand the nature and size of the threat facing their home communities. Local emergency management agencies and/or weather services may be able to provide the more precise information needed to better define the tornado threat facing a specific community or geographic location.

The Current Guidelines to a Safer Future

The next step planners usually must take is to determine the greatest vulnerabilities in the areas most likely to be in the direct path of future tornadoes. Although there often is very little that can be done to prevent nature-related threats, there are many things that can be done to at least minimize the vulnerabilities of a specific community or geographic locale. To begin with, when reviewing a particular facility, some vulnerabilities to consider include: (a) the types of materials used in the construction of buildings; (b) the lengths and configurations of the building roofs; (c) any structural items or “add-ons” located on top of the roof – heating and air conditioning systems, for example, as well as antenna towers, flag poles, etc.; (d) trees, light poles, or dumpsters close to the structure; (e) the type and sizes of windows in the building, as well as window protection systems such as reinforcing mesh or protective glazing; and (f) any hazardous chemicals or petroleum tanks near the structure.

The term “tornado shelter” now is often replaced with two different terms: “best available refuge areas” and “safe rooms.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines a best available refuge area as any and all areas in an existing building that have been judged “by a qualified architect or engineer to likely offer the greatest safety for building occupants during a tornado.” Safe rooms are similarly defined by FEMA as specialized rooms constructed to provide “near-absolute protection … based on our current knowledge of tornadoes and hurricanes.” In 2008, FEMA developed a helpful how-to guide – FEMA Publication P-361, Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms – to help design and build safe rooms; the same publication offers additional guidance for identifying areas of refuge and assessing a wind-hazard score.

Risk Communication to Reduce Public Panic

Risk communication, as defined in a May 2012 report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, is described – in a definition developed by Vincent Covello, founder and director of the Center for Risk Communication – as the “process of exchanging information among interested parties about the nature, magnitude, significance, or control of a risk.”

The same report also indicates that most people respond better when the risk communication is made through several sources, over multiple channels, and frequently repeated. An effective risk communication program, therefore, will push the risk message over multiple channels – for example, text, emails, public address announcements, electronic information boards, and alert messaging systems – and should have the ability to issue repeat and/or updated messages. After communication pathways have been developed, it is important that the target population understands not only what information is being communicated to them, but also what actions are expected of them.

The messages sent must include at least four key points: (a) the source of the threat; (b) who or what official authority has declared the emergency; (c) the response action(s) needed; and (d) how the emergency will later be “cleared.” For example: “A tornado warning has been issued by the NWS. Go to your sheltering areas and remain there until the ‘All Clear’ has been given.”

Somewhat earlier, a 2010 article (in Behavioral Sciences & the Law) noted that the specificity of the message is an important factor both in risk perception and in encouraging appropriate responses to an impending threat. In other words, the more specifically the actions necessary to live through it are described, the greater the risk is perceived. Other historic research in disaster evacuations shows that the likelihood for an appropriate response also includes such predictors as the certainty, proximity, and likely severity of the threat. Not all of these qualities must be incorporated in the original risk message, of course, but building into the message at least the most important of these predictors will more clearly define the risk posed to the target population, thus increasing the likelihood of compliance by the general public.

The same general advice, focused more tightly on crowd control, was included in a 2005 article in Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes by Benigno E. Aguirre of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, who described the effect of population density as follows: “The response of the gathering of people to the perceived presence of danger and the sense of urgency to respond to the crisis is immediate and overwhelming that the different propensities and choices of the individual evacuee and his or her group are largely erased.”

Aguirre’s theory also argues that, secondary to the density of a group in a given area, the individual is no longer free to make his or her self-determined actions and, largely for that reason, usually responds to the influences of the group. The prevailing mentality in such instances – more common in commercial structure fires than other scenarios – therefore becomes less a condition of mass panic and more a matter of mass “thinking.” When developing the areas of refuge, occupancy formulas can help ensure that those who are taking refuge are both safe and free to make safe decisions.

Strongly Recommended: Training Plans & Frequent Drills

Preparedness programs have both an educational and an exercise context built into them to help develop and encourage the responses desired from the target population. Among the most helpful topics to include in the training plan are the following:

  • Basic information about tornadoes;
  • Safety features related to the site itself – emergency lighting, generators, and weather radios, for example;
  • The location of safe rooms and/or other refuge areas;
  • An effective and comprehensive risk communication plan; and
  • The roles and responsibilities assigned to floor wardens and other employees.

Research published by the American Meteorological Society in 2009 found that the average “lead time” for the first tornado in a system to occur on a particular day is 16.4 minutes. The research also found that more than 10 percent of all tornado warnings provided by the NWS were issued with zero or negative lead times – zero lead time means that the warning is issued simultaneously with the touchdown of the funnel cloud, whereas a negative lead time means that the funnel touched down before the warning was issued.

Some tornado preparedness programs implement the use of tornado spotters to help visually identify and report funnel clouds, an ancillary capability that can significantly help cover some of the gaps that develop when radar imaging fails. To create a network of spotters who can supply critical information, the NWS provides the appropriate training, free of charge, to citizen volunteers. Subsequently, when tornado watches are issued, various sections of the plan go into effect immediately so that protective actions can be taken even before the watches become warnings.

Testing the Plan to Identify & Prevent Future Problems

Training drills and exercises should be conducted at least annually to familiarize the target population with the evacuation procedures and locations. Such drills should not only test the plan but also help to identify any remaining problems or other issues that need to be corrected. Among the potential problem areas to look for when conducting drills are the following:

  • Equipment failures – for example, bullhorns, P.A. systems, and emergency lighting systems;
  • Procedural issues – ensuring that people know what to do and when to do it; and
  • Population movement and sheltering – recent construction that may have shifted the areas of refuge or altered evacuation routes, or population changes in buildings that may have affected the balance of people in certain refuge areas and/or the duties assigned to floor wardens.

It also helps, of course, to add an evaluation component to the tornado planning process, which should include both an after-action report and a recommended improvement plan based on actions – both positive and negative – that were noted during the drill. As a result, things that went well can be reinforced and anything that went wrong can be analyzed, understood, and corrected in revisions to the original plan.

To briefly summarize, each year tornadoes continue to cause serious injuries, deaths, and significant monetary losses throughout the United States. However, through technology, awareness, and planning, these severe weather events can be mitigated, at least to some extent, to help reduce the most severe weather vulnerabilities. A tornado risk communication plan should be relatively concise, but also descriptive enough to encourage greater compliance. The plan also must be exercised frequently enough to ensure that site personnel understand how and when to respond. The most important fact to remember, though, is that all of the preceding is an ongoing process, various sections and parts of it will change, and the plan will continue to evolve.

Scott Fitzsimmons

Scott Fitzsimmons is an adjunct faculty member at Tiffin University, where he instructs courses on criminal justice, emergency management, and weapons of mass destruction. He has spent 19 years in the fire, emergency medical services, and law enforcement communities – and over the past 10 years has focused special attention on homeland security issues through research, training, planning, and operational deployments. He previously worked for the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and with the Department of Health and Human Services – in the capacity of both response and training at FEMA’s National Training Center in Anniston, Alabama.



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