ORIGIN: Starting the Conversation

Safe Schools 101 – FEMA and Oklahoma Emergency Management

04.29.14 by David Zuk
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As residents of Oklahoma we are fully aware the month of May means severe weather and tornadoes are likely to occur at any time throughout the month. Last year’s Moore tornado exposed how vulnerable the children in our schools are when a tornado hits a school during normal hours of operation.

Because of the tragedy in Moore, FEMA and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management (OEM) have created a program titled ‘Safe Schools 101’. This program trains Professional Engineers and Registered Architects to assess and recommend the best locations within existing buildings to be used as “Areas of Refuge” for the building occupants during an extreme weather or tornadic event.

The initial program has been completed and now OEM has taken full responsibility and control of continuing the training program. OEM is continuing to offer the Safe Room 101 training program with a goal of assessing every school within the state of Oklahoma which in number exceeds 1,800 schools. This program specifically requires Professional Engineers and Registered Architects to volunteer their time and resources to accomplish the OEM goal of assessing these schools. OEM can reimburse transportation costs exceeding 60 miles and hotel and per diem expenses for overnight stay. Normal hourly engineering fees provided by these professionals are not reimbursed by the current program. As of this writing, a Good Samaritan law is not in place to protect the engineering and architectural professionals from errors and omissions related to this program. House Bill 3188, which provides liability protection for these assessments, is currently working its way through the State of Oklahoma Legislature. Versions of this bill have been passed by the State House and State Senate, but the bill has not been signed by Governor Fallin. This bill specifically covers liability for “volunteers” only. Reference this link for the current version of the bill ( http://webserver1.lsb.state.ok.us/cf_pdf/2013-14%20AMENDMENTS/Amendment%20&%20Engr/HB3188%20SAHB%20&%20ENGR.PDF ).

The remainder of this blog expresses my own personal views and opinions of this program, the implementation of the program and my suggested comments on how to improve the program. These opinions are not necessarily the views and opinions of Wallace Engineering.

Currently, the classroom portion of the Safe Schools 101 is excellent. Training is provided to participants on how to use the FEMA evaluation checklists to assess existing wall types, roof types, foundation types and connections of these pieces to each other and how they perform in high wind events. The checklists combined with the professional experience of the engineer or architect help determine which areas are best to be used as an Area of Refuge within a building. The training course requires an actual assessment of a local school. OEM has secured existing construction drawings of the school to be assessed to help locate potential areas of refuge prior to the actual field visit. The actual field assessment occurs on a Saturday and a report of the findings is prepared and given to the administration of the school. That is where this program stops. This process from start to finish is good, but I believe there are some inherent problems with this program.

First, the time required to perform a complete assessment is significant. Construction drawings for the building(s) to be assessed must be located. Drawings will be available for some schools, but not others. Next, the construction drawings need to be reviewed prior to the field visit to determine the areas to be evaluated. The actual field assessment will occur next and the assessment will include the interior of the building and the exterior of the building to determine potential hazards around the building and potential projectiles existing outside of the building. After assessment of the buildings, a report will be prepared and given to the administration. Lastly, the engineering or architectural professional should meet with the administration to answer any questions concerning the report and to make sure the administrators are fully aware of how safe or unsafe the areas of refuge within their school are. I personally believe a public forum with parents of the children in the school should be provided to answer questions and to make sure parents understand how safe or unsafe the areas of refuge are within their children’s school.

As you can see this process requires a significant amount of time. As an example let’s assume the city of Guymon, Oklahoma requests an assessment of their schools. Their request assessment could include an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. Following the previous outlined steps, it is easy to see assessment of the Guymon schools could easily take a couple of weeks of billable time if not more. I believe the desire and expectation by the State of Oklahoma for volunteer engineers or architects to assess these schools is not reasonable. Because of these facts I have the following comments to address changes that I think will be required for all 1,800+ schools in the State of Oklahoma to be assessed by a Professional Engineer or Registered Architect.

  1. Above all, I believe the State of Oklahoma will have to appropriate funds to pay the professionals for their billable time. Each company will have to make a decision on whether or not to provide volunteers for this task. Without the appropriation of funds, I believe there will be very few volunteers particularly for remote school locations.
  2. The State of Oklahoma will need to pass a Good Samaritan law for Professional Engineers and Registered Architects who are assessing schools for agreed upon fees. The current proposed law for volunteers has language stating the law does not take affect till November of 2014. Volunteers will not make themselves available until the proposed law is law.
  3. The current Safe Schools 101 program does not include time to meet with the administration or parents of the school children to make sure both groups fully understand the quality of the areas of refuge within their individual school building. I believe providing a report to school administrators without educating them on the hazards in their areas of refuge is dangerous. Informing administrators and parents and answering their questions is the most essential part of this program and it must be added to the current OEM program.

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David Zuk, PE

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David received his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering degree from University of Texas-Arlington and is a licensed professional engineer in twenty states. He has…

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