The abundance of windows and wide open common spaces at Timber Creek High School created an enormous challenge for the school’s safety team when looking for places where students could shelter during tornado warnings and severe weather.
“It took us a year to figure that out. We walked every inch of that building,” said Gusti Ratliff, an assistant principal at Timber Creek.
Once they plotted a course, Timber Creek earned the distinction of being the first school in the state to be named a “Storm Ready School” by the National Weather Service.
Ratliff and Jason McLaughlin, a former Timber Creek teacher who is now an assistant principal at Fossil Hill Middle School, have led the school’s safety team the last few years. Together they studied sobering videos on YouTube on how a tornado destroyed a school and the May 2013 tornado in Moore, Okla., that killed seven students at an elementary school.
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They realized they needed to re-work their entire plan. Placing students in hallways with windows nearby wasn’t good enough.
Getting about half of the school’s 3,200 students downstairs without creating bottle necks at stairwells and getting everyone into a room with no windows proved difficult, Ratliff said. Then there was placing signs in every classroom and gathering area to direct the occupants to the nearest safe shelter and posting signs outside every designated “safe room.”
During twice yearly tornado drills, they used videos from the school’s security cameras to study how well the drill action plans worked to continue to tweak routes for the fastest way to shelter.
Other North Texas sites awarded
Mark Fox, warning and coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth attended a Keller school board meeting in June to honor Timber Creek High School for achieving “Storm Ready” status.
“This is the first high school, not only in North Texas but in the whole state of Texas. Storm Ready is going above and beyond the basic level of preparedness,” Fox said.
The National Weather Service grants the Storm Ready designation to municipalities, universities, military bases and commercial operations that have gone through a multi-step process to maximize safety in severe weather events. There are 2,664 sites in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Pacific Islands that have received the designations.
Among the other North Texas sites that have received the designation are: Methodist Healthcare System, North Texas Tollway Authority, Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, North East Mall in Hurst, Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington and Globe Life Park in Arlington and UT Arlington.
For schools, the requirements include having an emergency operations plan for severe weather, identifying shelter locations, having at least two tornado drills a year, training staff members, having at least two ways to get weather information and warnings to school officials and out to staff, students and visitors inside and outside the building and designating a staff member to monitor hazardous weather information daily.
“It’s one thing to have a plan on paper and another to really test and work on how long it takes to get to safety,” Fox said.
Storm shelters in schools
The designation doesn’t mean that other schools across the state aren’t safe places, it just means that Timber Creek has achieved the highest level of safety.
It’s just one step that city and school leaders are taking to make schools safer.
In December, the Fort Worth City Council adopted the 2015 International Building Code, but delayed the effective date of the storm shelter requirement for schools and public emergency response facilities until June 1.
So, any school, or fire station or police station that came in for permits after June 1 is required to build in the storm shelters. So far, there have been no request for permits to build a school in Fort Worth.
The 2015 International Building Code and a Federal Emergency Management Agency recommendation that all new schools with 50 or more students and staff have a designated storm shelter that must be able to withstand winds in excess of 250 mph, or an EF-4 rated tornado.
Texas has an average of 155 tornadoes a year, mostly in April, May and June. No schools have been severely damaged in Tarrant County in recent years, but on December 2015, an EF-3 tornado with winds of 165 mph shredded an elementary school in the Red Oak district, south of Dallas. No one was in the school because of the Christmas holiday, but students had to finish the school year at another campus while Shields was updated with new safety features.
Expanding the program
A storm chaser in his free time, McLaughlin monitored weather at Timber Creek last year and sent emails to all staff members if weather officials indicated favorable conditions for tornadoes, sometimes even days in advance.
“The biggest thing when schools are hit is they didn’t know it was coming,” McLaughlin said.
Because of their Storm Ready status, school officials have access “NWS Chat” a real-time online update for severe weather. They also have radio equipment to access the frequency where spotters talk about potential tornadoes forming, Ratliff said.
Ratliff said she will continue to work at improving Timber Creek’s tornado plan. When teachers return for training next month, they will be briefed on the emergency plan. In September, officials will have a tornado drill, study video of the response and collect feedback from faculty members.
McLaughlin said he would like to assist district officials in getting all the Keller campuses to that level of preparedness.
While many cities are designated as Storm Ready, including Fort Worth and Keller, Fox would like to see the program implemented in schools across the region.
“Schools are built beautifully, but the best environment for learning is not the best environment for safety,” he said. “It’s good to be prepared in the event of a disaster, but we pray it doesn’t happen.”