For a school facility manager, safety is a primary concern. Maintaining a safe school ranges from day-to-day details–taking care of slippery floors, damaged fire-exit crash bars, loose handrails–to planning for disasters. Although disasters come in many forms–from active shooters to extreme weather–some similar strategies can be employed to increase school safety across the board.
Many Schools Need Better Protection from Severe Weather
On May 3, 1999, numerous tornadoes tore through Sedgwick County, Kansas, located in Tornado Alley. This storm system did significant damage to two school buildings in Wichita. Luckily, these tornadoes struck after school hours. While no one was harmed, this was still a wake-up call to the local community: Each year thousands of Americans are injured or killed by severe weather events that can arise with little or no warning.
Following those tornadoes, Wichita received a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration–a type of executive action intended to help individuals, businesses, and public entities (like schools and municipalities) recover and rebuild following a natural disaster. A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration triggers long-term federal recovery grants, some of which are matched by state programs. Such a declaration also gives the state government access to FEMA funding. Wichita Public Schools used these funds to build large communal tornado shelters in some of their buildings, often by modifying an existing common area like a library or multi-purpose room. By renovating existing rooms in their active facilities, Wichita was sure to get the most “bang for their buck”: They enhanced school security while simultaneously increasing extreme weather preparedness, and assured that their new storm shelters would be regularly maintained without incurring any new ongoing expenses.
Bullet Proof Materials for Stormproof Schools
Many other states, including Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas, have also built in-school community shelters to provide a safe haven for large groups of people during tornados and hurricanes. As school facility managers in places like Tornado Alley have discovered, it can be relatively easy to transform an existing gathering space into a dual-purpose meeting room and shelter. Although FEMA has determined that most conventional consumer-grade bullet resistant glazings will not withstand extreme tornado winds, other bullet-resistant products will. Rigid bulletproof fiberglass panels (otherwise known as DuPont™ Kevlar® fiber panels) are a perfect example: Individual sheets are available in one-quarter and one-half inch thickness, and can be installed much like drywall. But when tested against the criteria of the FEMA 320 standard–which includes flinging a 15-pound 12-foot-long 2×4 into a barrier at 115 mph–a UL-Rated Level 3 sheet of ballistic fiberglass generally outperforms a 6-inch thick wall of stacked plywood. Kevlar panels are regularly used in commercial and residential safe rooms. For example, when NOAA built their new National Weather Center in the heart of Tornado Alley in 2006, they reinforced its walls with Kevlar panels.
FEMA Grants Make School Security Updates a Reality
Funding is always a struggle. But when it comes to student safety and security, federal financial assistance is available from a number of groups, including the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage insured financing, US Small Business Administration Disaster Loans, US Department of Housing and Urban Development Block Grant funds, and FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grants. In the case of a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program can provide funds to “reduce future loss of life and property during the reconstruction process following a disaster.”
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