The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 7, 2013

Pitt State leaders test disaster response in tornado simulation

By Debby Woodin

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Officials at Pittsburg State University during a training exercise Monday tested their response to a simulated major tornado.

Mike McCracken, director of university police, said the exercise was a blend of a verbal walk-through of a disaster scenario (in this case, a major tornado hitting the university during normal business hours) and a follow-up discussion about disaster policies and procedures.

“We tried to focus it on identifying our strengths in our existing systems and also used it as an opportunity to identify some areas we maybe need to improve on and become more efficient in,” he said. “We like to work our plan as often as possible, and talk through it to keep it updated and make any adjustments that we need to make.”

McCracken said strengths of the university include current notification systems, whereby students receive weather alerts via text message, the school’s social media sites and an outdoor public-address system. He said administrators are exploring adding another system that would streamline those operations. In the case of a tornado warning, students, faculty and staff members are directed to designated safe rooms within their buildings.

Steve Erwin, associate vice president for campus life and auxiliary services, said the exercise gave university leaders a chance to better prepare for future disasters — like the May 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., that cut a path of destruction through the center of the city and hit several elementary and secondary schools, but missed Missouri Southern State University.

“It was really designed to put the campus leadership into a scenario to make some real-time decisions and have some discussions about both preparing for and responding to the aftermath of such an incident,” Erwin said. “I think we came away with several takeaways: seeing opportunities for more training and development of staff and students, (and) we recognize some opportunities to enhance the capabilities of our emergency operation center to be able to sustain operations and have the appropriate equipment to do that in a large-scale event.”

At Missouri Southern, in case of a tornado warning, students, faculty and staff members would be notified by announcements on the school’s overhead public-address system, by text message through a mass notification system, and by updates on the university’s website and social media platforms, said Bob Harrington, risk manager and director of the physical plant.

Emergency procedures direct those on campus to seek shelter away from auditoriums and gymnasiums, and in interior hallways or rooms away from windows.

“We’ve got several buildings that have basements that are designated as shelters,” Harrington said. “We have designated areas for almost every building on campus that are considered safe zones.”

All emergency responses after a tornado would be directed through a command center that would be set up by university officials on the first floor of Plaster Hall, Harrington said.

At Crowder College in Neosho, Mo., Davidson Hall is a storm shelter certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The building, which opened in the spring of 2011, is kept unlocked during all tornado watches for the area, according to spokeswoman Cindy Brown.

During a tornado warning, the college broadcasts announcements across its overhead public-address system. People on campus and residents living nearby are directed to seek shelter in Davidson Hall, if they are able to do so. Maps and signs are posted across the campus to direct people to the safest areas in other buildings, Brown said.

Davidson Hall was first put to use as a shelter during a real tornado warning shortly after it opened, Brown said. She said the college tries to have at least one tornado drill per semester.

Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami sends phone calls or text message alerts to students who are signed up to participate in the mass notification program, according to spokeswoman Katie Dewey. She said she also sends a mass email to students, faculty and staff members alerting them of an emergency, and notification is posted to the school’s website and social media sites. In the case of a tornado, anyone on the NEO campus would be directed to an interior hallway or room of a building.

State assistance

THE PSU EXERCISE was led by Jackie Miller, the southeast regional coordinator for response and recovery in the state Division of Emergency Management. It was open to administrators, faculty representatives and staff members from the physical plant.