'We're not gonna succeed or fail, and even in a real natural disaster, not everybody gets through it, but at some point it gets resolved. The point of doing these types of exercises is to get that resolution as positive as possible.'
(TNS) - It was May 1, 2019, and a tornado was heading toward the Kirksville R-III School District.
That was the premise of an exercise conducted at the district's administration building Wednesday, when emergency responders and school officials gathered to consider how the district and the city would respond in an emergency weather event.
"This is not a test," Kirksville Police Department Chief Jim Hughes, who led the exercise, said. "We're not gonna succeed or fail, and even in a real natural disaster, not everybody gets through it, but at some point it gets resolved. The point of doing these types of exercises is to get that resolution as positive as possible."
Hughes led the room through a scenario in which the school district's campus is hit by a tornado measured at a four on the Enhanced Fujita scale, meaning it has wind speeds up to 200 miles per hour and can do substantial damage such as leveling homes and throwing cars through the air. Participants talked through what they would do at every step of the hypothetical situation, from receiving news of a tornado watch to reunite children with parents after the danger had passed.
For Kirksville's emergency responders, the process of responding to a severe weather event begins when they receive notification from the National Weather Service that one could be on the way. The NWS hosts a webinar for responders in the active area, informing them of what types of storms to expect. But at that stage, something like whether a tornado will touch down is far from predictable.
Hughes said the Emergency Operations Center located in the basement of the KPD building screens such weather alerts and school district officials are invited to participate.
"The best predictor of what a storm's gonna do is what a storm has done," Hughes said. "It's a little bit like human behavior."
The hypothetical storm in the exercise was formed by a supercell, a thunderstorm with a persistently rotating updraft. Supercells can create unusually long tornados; the tornado that hit Kirksville in 2009 and killed two people was formed by a supercell.
District Superintendent Dr. Damon Kizzire said schools could choose to start late or close early in order to send students home before a severe weather event. However, depending on the time of day and how much advance notice the district had, students would most likely shelter in place at the schools near solidly-built walls with no windows.
Participants discussed how they would send information out to parents. The school district uses a text alert system called Regroup, and the city uses one called TextCaster, but both require individuals to sign up in order to receive alerts.
Hughes said the city has recently signed up for a new system, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, that could help remedy the problem. IPAWS will allow the city to send out alerts via the same technology used by the National Weather Service, which sends alerts to all cell phones within range of specifically chosen cell towers without the need for anyone to opt in.
Jeff Alton, a regional coordinator for the State Emergency Management Agency, said Kirksville is located in a "dead zone" where radar equipment in major cities cannot always predict local weather patterns.
"This is the hardest place in all of Missouri to predict weather," Alton said. "You could have a tornado barreling right at Kirksville, and then it makes a left turn and moves 20 feet and poof -- it's gone."
Alton said this makes storm spotters on the ground an important part of preparing for tornados, but people may need to be told many times and from several different sources before they believe that a storm is coming and take precautions.
James Snyder, a battalion chief at the Kirksville Fire Department, emphasized the importance of educating the public about lockdown procedures that would occur in a severe storm in order to avoid a stream of parents coming to locked schools and attempting to retrieve their children.
"We need to educate right now, today, so that when that incident or that storm comes, nobody is in panic," Snyder said. "Everybody knows 'my child is safe, I don't need to run to the school -- why? Because I'm not gonna get them anyway. I can't get to them. They're safe.'"
Hughes said emergency responders might not be able to offer the school district assistance before a severe weather event, as their resources would be spread thin and they would still have to respond to ordinary calls.
"Heart attacks don't stop because a storm's coming," Hughes said.
For that reason, he said, people who call 911 to ask what to do when they hear a siren go off might receive no more response than a dispatcher hanging up on them so they can take other calls.
"If you think you're going to call dispatch and get additional information when the siren goes off, you're probably not," Hughes said.
In the final module of the exercise, the fictional tornado hit the R-III School District head on and did major damage to all buildings. In a real-life situation, this is where things would get very difficult for school employees. Hughes said that after a major storm touched down, people in school buildings should expect to wait approximately two hours before physical rescue began.
Transportation and staging at a scene would be very difficult after a major storm, he said, and emergency responders would have to prioritize many locations and many people who needed various degrees of help.
"Getting people here is going to be an incredible struggle," Hughes said.
Snyder, who went to New Orleans to act as an emergency responder after Hurricane Katrina, said school employees are told to prepare to shelter in place for up to 72 hours.
Hughes said school employees would likely have to do things like lift debris off children or apply tourniquets, but leaders should also be prepared to take a step back from that immediate rescue in order to make larger decisions.
Participants discussed other concerns that might come up in an emergency weather event, such as how quickly all busses could be recalled to the school district campus and how schools could help substitute teachers keep track of all their students.
Hughes said it was important to focus on identifying clear steps for what should be changed or improved and to make concrete plans to do so. He also suggested following up on the meeting with a practical exercise that would walk through the response in real time.
"There's an order of magnitude of things that you can learn that you wouldn't have thought about before by doing a practical exercise," Hughes said.
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