Commonwealth Journal

May 21, 2013

Local schools prepared for the worst when storms strike

By HEATHER TOMLINSON and CHRIS HARRIS
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

News like that out of Oklahoma this week has a way of striking a nerve with the rest of the nation. Particularly, those charged with the care of children — many of which were victims in the Midwestern tornadoes — find themselves paying close attention.
Steve Butcher, superintendent of Pulaski County Schools, said on Tuesday that there was a meeting of his district’s principals that very day — only one day after the storms in Moore, Okla., that killed over 90 people — to address such matters.
“We discussed our heartfelt feelings for those students and teachers,” said Butcher, referencing the damage done to schools in that area like Plaza Towers and Briarwood Elementary Schools.
“I told our principals that it’s only about 13 hours from here to Moore, Okla.,” he continued. “The same thing that happened there could certainly happen here.”
It so happens that the school district’s emergency management meeting, an annual function, will be held today at the Hal Rogers Fire Training Facility at 1 p.m., to discuss emergency management planning; a similar meeting will be held next week, said Butcher.
“Each school has a team that has individual assignments for what they’re supposed to do in case this happens or that happens,” said Butcher. “It’s important for us to come together as a district yearly to talk about our emergency management plan. This is very timely from our standpoint.
“All kinds of emergencies can take place,” he added. “It’s not just shootings. Tornadoes can be just as devastating to a school.”
For all intents and purposes, the school system is about as well-prepared as one can be for a tornadic occurrence. 
“We think our plan is state-of-the-art,” said Butcher. “(It is) a model used across the state; we’ve had it in place for a while. Sometimes when schools don’t have good emergency plans, they refer those districts to us.”
The ideas Butcher mentioned are simple but tried and true, with one key: get as far inside as possible.
“We have designated areas where our students go to the most safe spots in the building — we feel like our buildings are very safe,” he said. “We try to get kids away from windows where glass and debris is flying through. We get them into hallways where we’ve got concrete walls on each side of you.
“The kids practice tornado drills (in the designated areas),” he added. “The main thing is to get them out of harm’s way.”
This is common practice for local schools. Boyd Randolph, superintendent of the Somerset Independent School System, said his district practices tales similar action in the event of inclement weather, and he noted that his district works hard to keep students ready for weather-related emergencies.
“As part of our way of doing business, we have physical practice drills we do to cover all sorts of events,” said Randolph. “The grown-ups also practice their roles.”
Watching weather patterns and reports is another important practice for Randolph. Keeping abreast of what’s happening on a hourly — even to the minute — basis can sometimes be critical in a severe weather situation.
“It’s part of the normal practice that everyone does,” he said.
Randolph also noted that kids are kept in the building during hazardous weather events. Sometimes, however, this may interfere with parents wanting to pick their children up and take them home if they feel they may be safer there.
“We’ll always defer to the parent to take control of their child,” said Randolph. However, “We have to keep them safe. We have to take measures to ensure their safety before we can ever teach them. 
“The obligations we have, we take very seriously,” he added. “That’s why we devoted almost an entire section in our policy manual just to safety.”
Rick Walker, superintendent of Science Hill School — located in the northern part of Pulaski, where tornadoes seem traditionally more common — said that his administrators, teachers, and kids know what to do in “every situation” that might arise.
“We’re always as prepared as we can be,” he said. “... I’m very confident we are prepared to do what we have to do. We’re on high alert whenever there are threats, including weather.”
Walker also said he keeps a close eye to the skies, especially when it means determining whether to “roll the buses out” or not. 
“We’re focused, I’ll tell you that,” said Walker. 
Walker said those at his school are “praying for those families” in Oklahoma that suffered loss and devastation.
Tiger Robinson, Pulaski County Public Safety Director, said that local emergency responders “stepped their guard up” in the wake of the Oklahoma storms.
“We’re deeply saddened by the losses there,” he said. “It brought it up to us again that it can happen in Somerset as well as in Oklahoma.”
He said that local fire departments, the county’s rescue squad, and other critical agencies perform yearly training on what to do if ever faced by a situation like the one in the news — this includes specific preparedness exercises for dealing with collapsed structures, search and rescue efforts, and weather spotting.
“You can never be too prepared — if you think you’re too prepared, you need to quit the business,” said Robinson. “We watch the radars and the storm system as they develop. All emergency personnel across the county, the law enforcement, (they) try to keep track of what’s going on.”
While storms are rolling into the area — some hit last night, causing limited damage countywide; those today are expected to potentially include some “severe” storms — Robinson said Tuesday that there was nothing on the radar that “jumped out at” him as particularly worrisome. Still, “tornadoes are a different animal. It can be a clear morning and the next moment, you’re having a tornado.”
Robinson advised individuals to be aware of their surroundings and not wait for a storm to hit before checking out places one could go in the event on an emergency.
“If you have small kids at home, do drills,” he said. “Be weather aware. If it’s on the 10 p.m. news or 5 p.m. news and there’s a potential for storms, be watching. If it looks stormy outside, be looking for a place to go. Don’t wait until it strikes and then say, ‘We’ve got to go.’”
Robinson also trumpeted the Pulaski County 911 Center’s Code Red system, which sends alerts over the phone if there’s a severe weather situation. Robinson said individuals can call 606-679-3200 to register for the alert, which he noted is more effective than tornado sirens outdoors, which aren’t always easy to hear.
Robinson and other local personnel are standing by, waiting to be told if their services are required in assisting in the Oklahoma relief efforts. So far, said Robinson, no such requests have been made, but Robinson has been in contact with emergency officials in the Kentucky state capital to ask if Oklahoma needs an assistance contingent from here in Pulaski County.
“At this time, we haven’t been called,” he said. “This will be a long recovery. (It involves) rebuilding, clearing, stuff like that. It’s not going to be an overnight thing, it will take months.”