How to get Emergency Weather Information:

    Because tornadoes and severe thunderstorms occur with little, if any, warning, minutes and even seconds can mean lives. In just five minutes, a tornado may travel two to four miles on the ground. From the time the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a warning, to the time you receive that warning via radio or television, ten minutes may have elapsed. Also, you must be listening at the critical moment that the warning is announced or an even greater amount of time will pass!

animated weather radio logo    The fastest, most accurate and reliable means of receiving critical weather information at your school is through a NOAA Weather Radio with a "tone alert" feature. You will receive the warning directly from the National Weather Service in just a couple of minutes from its issuance. These radios can be purchased in electronic stores and generally cost between $40 and $80.  When NWS issues a tornado warning, the "tone alert" (1050 Hertz) is instantly sounded followed by warning information.

    In addition to the tone-alert, a digital burst of information is sent out. In some cases, such as a tornado warning, television and radio stations use this digital information for activation of the Emergency Alert System (EAS). You can now program special NWR receivers that use the digital burst to only warn you when weather is to affect your county. The National Weather Service refers to this digital burst as "Specific Area Message Encoding" (SAME).

    The radio's "tone alert" feature and SAME is used for the issuance of all weather warnings as well as severe thunderstorm, flash flood, hurricane, and tornado watches. (See the appendix for Watch/Warning definitions). NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week with the latest weather information from daily forecasts to special weather statements about sudden shifts in the weather patterns or the development of potentially hazardous weather. (For more information on NWR see the appendix).

    If your school is not in a reliable NWR listening area (due to interference from mountains or other sources) and attaching your radio to an exterior antenna does not help, then below are some suggested alternatives -

  1. If you have cable television access, The Weather Channel uses NWS products and broadcasts warnings immediately upon receipt from NWS via a satellite link. Warnings are continuously scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
  2. Some cable companies include a channel with a local NWS radar display and use NOAA Weather Radio as a voice-over.
  3. Monitor your local news radio station for EAS messages and special statements from the National Weather Service. EAS operates on a cooperative agreement between broadcasters and federal, state, and local government agencies. EAS is activated for tornado warnings and severe flash flooding.

Phone "call-down" systems used in some counties are not advised for receipt of warning information due to

  1. time elapsed in relaying information,
  2. chance of incorrect or incomplete information being passed,
  3. lack of reliability of phone systems during storms, and
  4. the NWS advises people not to use telephones during an electrical storm.

    Your radio or television should be located in the main office or near the person(s) responsible for enacting the plan. Main offices are good because generally there is always a number of people around who could hear the alert, and in a quick emergency, it is close to the public address (PA) system. If using a NWR, the radio should be set at all times in "Alert" mode. Some radios will automatically turn on when an alert sounds while others must be manually turned on after the tone is heard. It is probably better to have the type that automatically turns on in case you are out of the room when the tone is activated. If using NWR, the information cycles every few minutes, so if you don't get all the information you need the first time through, it will repeat shortly. More expensive NWR models include features such as a tie in to your PA system, ability to set off a pager or telephone someone, flashing lights for new warnings and a button to play the warning back with a date/time stamp.

    Listen for the type of watch or warning and where it is in effect. The person(s) monitoring must know what action they should take based on this information. It is suggested you have a map nearby for easy reference to counties and towns to locate storms and their movement in reference to your school. There is no need to take emergency action if the warning is not for your location. It should, however, heighten your awareness to the potential for severe weather to affect your school district, especially if the warning is for a county near you and the storms are moving your way!

How will the School Administration Alert Teachers and Students to Take Action?

    Most schools utilize a public address (PA) system to talk directly to students and teachers. In some cases, electricity may be lost during a storm before you have activated your plan. Therefore, it is critical to have a back-up alerting device such as a compressed air horn or megaphone.

    If your school has mobile classrooms or detached gymnasiums that are not part of a public address or intercom system, then special arrangements must be made to notify these areas. Sending "runners" outside to mobile classrooms is not advisable due to the danger posed by lightning and the approaching storm. Wireless communication devices are an effective means for such communication. "Walkie-talkies" may be the least expensive.

    Handicapped or learning-disabled students may also require special attention. You may want a teacher to be assigned to each student requiring special attention to see that the student moves to the appropriate place of safety. Any students that are in a position not to hear the warning must be taken into account.

    To insure appropriate action and understanding of your "Call to Action," you must exercise your plan. A section entitled "Need for Periodic Drills and Severe Weather Instruction" will follow later in this section.

Determining Tornado and High Wind Safety Zones in Your School:

    This may be the most time consuming and important phase of designing your plan. Schools are sufficiently complex and diverse in design that it is impossible to describe a plan that will apply to every school. Due to this complexity, it is recommended that this phase of the plan be accomplished with the help of an engineer or architect familiar with the school's design. You can also contact your local NWS office and ask the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for help.  Below, you will find some general guidelines and basic concepts to help you.

    The greatest threat from high winds (caused by tornado, hurricane, thunderstorm downburst, or a strong pressure surge behind a cold front) are -

  1. roof failure
  2. breaking glass, and
  3. flying debris (airborne missiles)
diagram of airflow around structures

     The most dangerous locations are generally large rooms with big expansive roofs such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, and auditoriums. The collapse of the room's outer load-bearing wall can lead to the failure of the entire roof. Roofs tend to rely on gravity to keep them attached. When strong winds act on a structure, pressure differences are created causing outward pressures forces that act to lift the roof.

diagram of airflow around structures

    Rooms with large windows that may shatter from being struck by airborne missiles or from pressure stresses are also extremely dangerous. While windows on the side of the school facing the storm are most susceptible, as the storm passes, any windows could potentially shatter. Once winds enter a building, additional damage is likely and can be like a domino effect. This is one of the reasons that YOU NEVER OPEN WINDOWS WHEN A STORM APPROACHES! Greater damage may occur from this action and valuable time that should be used getting to safety is often lost.

school floor plan

    Small interior rooms, bathrooms, and windowless, interior hallways that are away from exterior doors offer the best protection. All doors should be closed, if possible. Interior load-bearing walls (with short roof spans) provide better protection than temporary or non-load-bearing walls and structures. If your school has more than one level, evacuate the upper floor of the school. The lowest level is always the safest.

    Schools designed for the "open classroom" concept used in the early 1970s have a difficult task of finding safe areas due to a lack of interior load-bearing walls, large spanning roofs and the use of a lot of glass. You may not be able to find enough "ideal" space to occupy your whole student body. It may be a matter of determining the lesser of evils. Below is a list beginning with the highest probability of failure:

  1. Mobile Classrooms
  2. Rooms with large roof spans (gymnasium, auditorium, cafeteria)
  3. Windows on exterior walls
  4. Roof
  5. Exterior walls of upper level
  6. Interior walls of upper level; exterior walls of lower level; interior glass and interior, lower level, non-load-bearing walls.

    Fortunately, the majority of tornadoes will not destroy well constructed buildings and damage in about 75% of cases should not go beyond #4 and 90% of cases should not go beyond #5. Using these considerations you may want to rank areas according to safety. Then begin by filling the safest areas first with students and continue until you have found space for the entire student body.

    Again, it is best to have an engineer or architect advise your school on the safest areas since schools are built with varied designs and purposes. The priorities listed above are based on broad generalities.

Determining When to Activate Your Plan ; When it is Safe to Return to Normal Activities:

    When deciding to activate a plan, you must use as much information as possible about the type of storms, expected impact and time of impact on your school district to access the risk. A plan may work best with phases of activation. For instance, outdoor activities will be the most susceptible to weather hazards with lightning being the greatest threat. If thunder is heard or lightning is seen, outdoor activities should be delayed with students and spectators moved to safety immediately. Do not wait for the rain. The delay in activities should last until the storm has safely passed. This means that thunder is not heard and lightning is seen for 15 minutes.

    In a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch, outdoor activities should be postponed. As the storms approach, you may want to move students from the most susceptible areas of your school, such as mobile classrooms and gymnasiums, to safer areas as a precaution even though a warning has yet to be issued. You might also do this for "High Wind Warnings". For potentially severe thunderstorms, you may want to post teachers or school personnel trained in spotting severe weather to watch the storms as they approach for the need to take special actions (see section 3 on severe weather spotter training).

    If a severe thunderstorm warning is issued, all of the above actions are warranted. In addition to strong damaging winds, severe thunderstorms may contain large hail and students should be moved out of areas with skylights.  If you have areas where large exterior windows may be struck by the storm's winds, it is advised to kept students out of these areas as well until the storm passes.

students in safe position in hallway    If a tornado warning is issued and you have determined that your school is in the path of this storm, an immediate and complete "Call to Action" is needed. If the storm has not yet reached your school, move students from unsafe areas as listed above and post a trained teacher or school employee to keep an eye on the storm's approach. From your drills you should know approximately how long it will take to move students into "tornado safe areas."

    As the tornadic storm begins to hit, all students should be in the designated tornado safe areas. If winds pick-up outside the school, if a roar like that of a freight train is heard, if large hail is falling, or you hear breaking glass, everyone should drop into the protective position immediately (see picture).

    Winds may pick-up at the onset of the storm and may or may not drop off prior to the tornado. It may get very dark out. Rain, lightning, and/or hail may, or may not, be occurring. Large hail is a signal that you are near the part of the storm in which the tornado would occur.

    If there has been no warning and students and teachers are still in their classrooms when that freight train is heard or the sound of breaking glass or structure failure (whether from wind or even a bomb), the safest thing for everyone to do is to drop beneath their desks and take the position shown in the picture.

    Once the storm has past, students may return to classrooms. Stay alert for the possibility of additional storms.

    One complication to activating a full "Call to Action" plan is if it occurs during class changes when the halls are crowded and students may not know where to go. It may be best to hold classes beyond regular dismissal time until the severe weather threat has passed. Likewise, at the end of the school day, students may need to be held from boarding busses until the danger has passed.

    You should have at least a couple people who know how to shut off the main power (electricity) and gas (if applicable). If a tornado or severe thunderstorm has significantly damaged your school, shut off the gas and electricity for safety purposes. Inform

Determining When to Hold Departure of School Buses:

    You will want to consider holding the departure of students to buses whenever watches or warnings are in effect. There are two primary considerations:

  1. Upon departure, how long will it take before all students have been deposited safely at home. Include time for the students to walk from their bus stop to their home.
  2. How much time do you have before the storms impact your district. Severe thunderstorm and tornado watches are sometimes issued a couple hours in advance of thunderstorm development. Watches are generally issued for large areas, so even once storms have developed, it may be a couple hours before the storms reach you. On the other hand, it may be a rapidly developing situation with less than an hour before the storms impact.

If condition 2 is less than condition 1, then a delayed departure is recommended. Busses provide no protection from severe storms. The next section will discuss what bus drivers should do if faced with a tornado approaching or flood waters in their path.

    It is not advisable for parents to be running to the school to pick up their children in severe weather. They should be made to understand that the child is far safer at the school with the severe weather plan in place than on the road when a storm strikes. Other considerations may include if a large number of children from your district live in mobile homes. The school would provide a far safer environment. Mobile homes are extremely susceptible to high winds (even when properly anchored and tied down). A storm that would produce very minor damage to a school could completely destroy a mobile home and kill its occupants.

School Bus Actions:

    All school bus drivers should be trained on how to handle severe weather situations. Two primary concerns are flooding and tornadoes. Additional thought might be given to high wind situations (thunderstorm or other), unexpected heavy snow or ice, extreme heat or extreme cold and wind chill.  In most situations, these events are forecast in advance, but there are times when it may catch you by surprise.

TORNADOES - NEVER ATTEMPT TO OUTRUN A TORNADO!   If a bus driver has reason tornado pictureto believe a tornado is approaching, the following steps should be taken.

    1.  If you have the time to get the students to a well-constructed building, then certainly do so as fast as possible. Move them into the interior or basement of the building away from windows and doors.
    2. If no well-constructed building is available for shelter, then look for a ditch or low lying area (preferably without water). Stop thesafe position outside bus downwind from the location you have selected. You do not want the wind to roll the bus toward where the students will be. Unload the  students and move them to the ditch or low-lying area and have them get in the protective position with their hands over the head.

    If your bus route takes you across small streams and creeks or along a river, you need to have either determine an alternate route to travel or have a contingency plan to return to the school once flood waters are encountered. Major river flooding and coastal flooding generally is well forecast with warnings issued early enough that schools and drivers can plan their strategy prior to placing the students on the bus. However, flash flooding a sudden, dramatic and dangerous rise in water levels, usually does not occur with much warning. It is this type of flooding for which drivers need to understand what to do and what not to do, well is advance.
       In general, a shallow ponding of water on the roadway is usually not a problem. As soon as the depth of the water comes into question such that you can no longer see the road, do not enter. The road may have been undermined or the water may be deep enough to stall the bus and place all of it occupants in danger. Do not enter underpasses that are filling with water.  If the water appears to be flowing (moving across the road), do not enter. The bus will act as a barrier and the water will attempt to lift and move the bus.  If water is flooding over or around a bridge, do vehicle upside down in rivernot cross it, it might collapse from the weight of the bus. The foundation of the bridge may have been compromised.
   Water levels can rise extremely rapidly and the force of that water against an automobile or a bus can be amazingly powerful. If the driver is caught in an unavoidable situation, seek higher ground immediately. If the bus stalls, and water is rising, abandon the bus and seek higher ground before the situation gets out of control.


    Children awaiting the school bus in the morning, standing exposed to a cold wind without proper clothing for protection, may develop hypothermia. School bus drivers as well as teachers should be taught to recognize symptoms of hypothermia and frost bite described in the appendix.

    On hot, humid days, where the heat index exceeds 100 F in May or June, some children may have difficulty handling the heat. They may be boarding the bus from an athletic event or coming from a hot classroom. A child may be dehydrated and starting to show signs of heat exhaustion. Again, drivers should be taught to recognize symptoms of heat stress. See appendix.

Special Considerations for Other Weather Hazards:


satellite photo of hurricane    A hurricane is a large spiraling complex of thunderstorms up to 300 miles in diameter. Hurricanes and tropical storms have produced extreme coastal flooding, flash flooding, and river flooding. This flooding is responsible for the majority of hurricane related fatalities. Winds can gusted over 100 mph and hurricanes may spawn tornadoes. These are the major concerns.

    By listening to statements from your local National Weather Service Office and your local emergency management, you should know what is expected to occur in your school district prior to the storm striking and can make your decisions accordingly. If school is in process when a hurricane or tropical storm strikes, then the threat and actions to take are similar to those mentioned for flooding, lightning, and strong damaging winds. Schools susceptible to river or coastal flooding may be asked to evacuate. Other schools may become shelters for people in flood prone areas or those living in mobile homes. Actions taken by those sheltered at the school should be the same as if the school were in session.


snow blankets the Mall in Washington    About 60 percent of deaths in winter storms occur in vehicle accidents on icy and snowy roads. Some deaths occur from exposure to the cold, whether trapped out in the storm or caught indoors without heat or electricity. Those most susceptible to the cold are young children (under 2 years old) and elderly (over 60 years old). Some deaths occur from fires started by improper use of alternative heat and light sources such as fireplaces, candles, wood stoves, and space heaters. When the National Weather Service issues a Winter Storm Warning, people should not venture out. Proper preparedness, wearing appropriate winter clothes, and following safety procedures will save lives. See appendix C on winter storm safety.

    In addition to Winter Storm Warnings, schools need to also be concerned about exposure to cold as students stand awaiting buses to pick them up or during an outdoor recess. The degree of exposure the student will experience will be a function of the temperature, the wind, the clothes they wear, and the amount of time they are exposed. The National Weather Service issues Wind Chill Warnings when the wind chill temperature is expected to reach -30F or colder. At -30F, exposed flesh can become quickly frost bitten. If the morning temperature is 5F and the wind is blowing 15 mph; the wind chill temperature is -25F. The National Weather Service issues Wind Chill Advisories when the wind chill is expected to reach -15F or colder.

    In cases of extreme cold, proper clothing is very important and needs to be stressed to the students. Teachers should be taught to recognize symptoms of frost bite and hypothermia. See part 7 of Appendix C. Outdoor activities should be canceled. Delaying school hours may or may not solve the problem of students standing at bus stops in the cold if the temperature rises enough. Bus stop shelters would help protect the students from the exposure to wind.


    While most heat waves hit when school is out, temperatures can occasionally soar into the 90s in May and June. Like wind to cold, humidity adds to the effects of heat. A "heat index" is used to combine these effects. The National Weather Service headlines the heat index in its forecasts when it is expected to reach 100F. At temperatures of 105F and greater, a Heat Advisory is in effect and heat disorders such as cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke are possible. Students should be kept out of the sun and strenuous activities should be eliminated. Encourage students to drink lots of water and wear light-colored, light-weight clothing. Teachers should learn what are the symptoms of heat disorders and first aid procedures. See appendix C.8.

Need for Periodic Drills and Severe Weather Safety Instruction:

    In order to have an effective severe weather emergency plan, you must have periodic severe weather drills and severe weather safety training. Drills not only teach students and instructors the actions they need to take, but will allow you to evaluate your plan's effectiveness. Did everyone hear the message, did they understand what to do, and were they able to get to the designated areas of safety in a reasonable amount of time? It is suggested that you conduct drills in conjunction with a severe weather education and awareness programs so that students and teachers understand the dangers of severe weather and better comprehend the actions that they are asked to take.

    The NWS in conjunction with the state office of emergency management runs a statewide weather awareness campaigns. Tornadoes are usually addressed the last week in March before the onset of the severe weather season. This campaign is coordinated through the local government emergency management agencies and the news media and usually includes a proclamation from the governor. This may be an opportune time for your school to conduct a drill and program.

    You can contact your local NWS office or emergency management office if you would like a speaker to come to your school and discuss severe weather safety. It also suggested that a tornado drill is conducted in September, the beginning of the school year and then again in March. The September drill will instruct new students of procedures and act as a refresher for returning students. The March drill will get everyone ready for the start of the thunderstorm season.

    While severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are often advertised as a "springtime or summertime" event, in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, outbreaks of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes often have occurred in October and November.

noaa logo