Shutting Out Mother Nature

Company examines products against wind, rain and snow

When a tornado blew away a portable school in Wichita, Kan. in 1999, elementary school students were just 20 feet away in another temporary building.

“Seventeen students were eating breakfast at 7:30 a.m. when the storm hit without any kind of warning,” said Corey Schultz, a Wichita architect.

Most school administrators and security integrators don’t spend much time worrying about a hurricane or a tornado’s impact within their district’s classrooms. Yet, James Bell, ASSA ABLOY’s windstorm coordinator, and Schultz, a project manager for PBA Architect, say they are always looking at ways to make schools safer from Mother Nature’s power.

Increased Expectations
Schultz helped the International Code Council and the National Storm Shelter Association draft the ICC-NSSA 500 standards, a 90-page document that helps school districts find the guidelines to build safer shelters for their students.

When a Fujita Scale 4 tornado -- with a wind speed between 207 to 260 miles per hour -- killed 15 students at an Enterprise, Ala., high school more than a year ago, Bell suggested school officials might have limited the destruction by building existing shelters to a higher federal standard.

“Without reinforced walls, roofs and all exterior components, there is not much you can do to protect the occupants of a shelter,” Bell said. “Shuttering openings and replacing doors is a start, but those methods are dependant on the strength of other building envelope structures. When the roof came off, the Enterprise school walls caved in, so the addition of door and window protection didn’t come into play.

“With the FEMA 361 guidelines, schools have to update their shelter areas so students and faculty members are protected.”

Schultz also works with educators in Kansas and Oklahoma to help them understand the unique requirements to build tornado resistant shelters.

“The problem with some architects is that they get a free copy of FEMA 361, and all of a sudden they think they are an expert on school shelters,” Schultz said. “It’s important for school officials and their architects to work with people who understand the issue.”

Shelter from the Storm
Stronger equipment and doors also play a role in building a better shelter for schools.

Several years ago, ASSA ABLOY began to work with the Wichita district to show how their doors could meet the standards for FEMA 361 shelters. David Hilderbrand, an ASSA ABLOY specification consultant, worked with Schultz to add new shelter protection products.

Hilderbrand and Schultz worked to put together a proposal to upgrade 60 school shelters as part of a November bond issue. Voters narrowly approved the $370 million bond in the Nov. 4 election.

Once the funding is in place, the schools will upgrade the remaining 60 shelters with FEMA grant money. Schultz said FEMA’s grant program pays for 75 percent of the costs to upgrade school shelters. With the bond money, the school district can now upgrade their shelters.

While Wichita should upgrade the remaining schools to the higher FEMA standard, the installation will still take time. Until the shelters are installed, students at those schools still face the risk of an unexpected tornado. Still, the district has a plan in place to address the security and safety of their students.

“When I meet with superintendents, I ask them if they could imagine having to call a parent and telling them that a tornado killed their child or would they prefer a phone call where they told them that their school was struck by a tornado, but they can pick up their child.” Schultz said.

Where can educational administrators or security professionals find information on how to make their schools safer? Here’s a listing of suggested resources:

ICC 500-2008: ICC/NSSA Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters, ICC Product Store: ICC 500-2008: ICC/NSSA Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters ... and the National Storm Shelter Association (

The National Storm Shelter Association Web page ( This Web site provides a direct link to FEMA regulations and documents. The Lubbock, Texas, based association also provides updates to its Web site.

Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “Emergency Management: Shelter From the Storm.” (

About the Author

Matt Scherer is a freelance writer based in San Antonio, Texas.

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