The recent tornado in Oklahoma and the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut last year have increased people’s awareness of emergency management at schools.
At the University of Texas’s Police Building, the Emergency Operation Center is quiet right now. But David Cronk, UT’s Emergency Preparedness director, says when there’s a threat or major event, the room can get pretty crowded.
"There's UT Police department, joint terrorism task force, Federal Bureau of Investigation, AISD police," Cronk says.
With a student and faculty population around 50,000, UT is larger than some small towns — and the Emergency Operations Department says its constantly prepping for a large event, whether it’s weather, technological or a human threat.
UT Weather and Climate Manager Troy Kimmel says the university considers weather its biggest potential problem. Austin isn’t located in the so-called Tornado Alley. But Kimmel says that’s not a reason to think one can’t happen here.
“Four of the worst tornados in Texas history, if you draw a point between those four places, what’s in the middle? It’s Austin! So, I can sit here talk about tornado alley all day long, and tell people the chances of seeing a tornado around here are pretty slim, but I’m not about to rest on that," Kimmel says.
The university is classified StormReady by the National Weather Service, but the university does not have any tornado shelters. Every month it tests a campus wide siren. Cronk says if the siren goes off, students know to go inside.
“With regards to tornados specifically, the highest threat is flying debris. We say, 'go to the lowest possible floor, interior corridors, away from windows. Put as many walls as you can between you and the exterior of the building,'" he explains.
UT also runs 22 additional drills per year at dorms and buildings—a mixture of evaluation, shelter and lock down drills.
All education systems in Texas—higher and public education—are required to have an emergency plan that’s subject to state audit. In the Austin Independent School District, every campus has its own individual emergency plan. John Gaete is AISD’s Emergency Management Coordinator. He says the district wants schools prepared for all types of emergencies:
“The procedures we have in place are meant to be modified on the fly when something happens," Gaete says.
All campuses must have plans for the follow procedures: evacuation, reverse evacuation, shelter and lockdown. Once the district’s Emergency Management Bureau approves the plans, teachers and administrators are trained and schools conduct drills with students throughout the year—about one per month. If there’s a tornado, Gaete says most campuses follow the same basic guideline.
Schools are taught how to pick areas of refuge. Typically places in Interior rooms or interior hallways that are structurally sound that could withstand the impact of tornado," Gaete says.
None of the AISD campuses has tornado shelters either. If the district wanted to build tornado shelters in existing schools, it would need to include that in future bond propositions. AISD says right now it has no plans to do that.