Preparing for Weather: Emergency Drills in Schools

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
8/9/2012 1:50:51 PM

As your family prepares for the new school year there seems to be an infinite amount of concerns. Will your children do well in their classes, will they make friends, will they have fun, and most importantly, will they be safe?

It's important to know what kind of safety procedures your children's schools have in place for emergency weather. Do they have safety rooms for tornadoes? Do they have adequate warning systems in place? What kind of drills are they using to prepare your children for an emergency?

Emergency drills all start with the same foundations: knowing the basics for how to stay safe in that situation. Before schools and teachers can effectively run an earthquake, tornado, or other safety drill, they must learn the official protocol for reacting to that kind of emergency.

Most severe weather, like an intense snow storm or a hurricane, should be known well ahead of time and schools should be closed before the threat. But for sudden storms, like a tornado or an earthquake, schools should have emergency plans in place and should prepare the students for the potential of these emergencies with drills.

Earthquake drill. Photo courtesy of jovenjames

"When it comes to most severe weather, if we know ahead of time we close the schools," said Tori Underwood, Assistant Principal at the New Boston Central School in New Boston, N.H. "But we do practice for sudden emergencies. Earthquakes here are rare, but not impossible, so we practice having the kids move away from doors and windows and getting under their desks, so they're ready just in case."

This is the advice that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends as the right response to earthquakes. They recommend that everyone drop (to the ground), cover (by getting underneath a sturdy table or desk) and hold on (until the quake stops).

It's also important to stay away from windows, glass objects and doors that lead outside. Contrary to popular belief, standing in a doorframe is not recommended for safety, unless you are positive that the frame is strongly supported and load-bearing. Inside doorways that are lightly constructed will not offer protection.

Most earthquake injuries happen when people are inside and are trying to move outside. For this reason it is imperative that everyone stays indoors. The most common injuries from earthquakes are the result of falling or flying debris, especially glass, and collapsing walls.

If you are already outside and an earthquake starts, move away from any buildings or utility lines, get low to the ground and just stay put until the shaking stops. It's very rare for people to be injured just from the shaking ground.

Earthquake drills practice these elements. Students should be instructed ahead of time how to react to an earthquake, and then during the drill teachers and officials in the room or on the playground when the drill is taking place should make sure all students follow the appropriate safety measures. School staff should always be prepared to instruct students to get into the earthquake safety positions as soon as the first jolt or shake is felt in the event of an actual earthquake.

Even areas that are not prone to earthquakes should still have drills in place, as an earthquake can happen anywhere, even in places where they are not common.

In a tornado drill, the first steps should be to first move everyone to the lowest level of the school, by taking stairs and never the elevators. If there is no basement, then everyone should go as low as they can and avoid windows.

Related: Important Tornado Safety Tips to Follow

As with earthquakes, flying debris and glass can be extremely dangerous. Windows should always be avoided during tornadoes. If there is no basement or designated safety room in case of a tornado, students should be moved away from windows, usually into the hallways, and should follow the duck and cover method.

"[North Carolina] State law mandates twice a year for us to do different severe-weather alarms," said West Forsyth High School teacher Stuart Egan. "A few years ago we had a tornado sighting. It didn't end up coming through campus, but it was in the area only about a mile away. Because of the drills, everyone knew what to do."

Students duck and cover in the hallway after a tornado is reported in their area. Photo courtesy of Melanie Holtsman

A big concern for growing schools is being able to move children inside if they are located in pod or trailer classrooms. Trailers will not offer protection to the students inside in the event of a tornado, but it can be just as dangerous to move them in the middle of the storm. That's why it's so important for everyone to know what to do as soon as a threat arrives so they can act quickly.

"Kids don't always see the drills as serious when we're practicing," Egan said, "but after you actually use them for a real emergency... it's a sobering experience."