June 4, 2011
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab
SRU ready for weather emergencies, tornadoes
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Slippery Rock University officials say the campus is prepared as well as possible for a tornado, but warn that planning is only as good as the actions those on campus take in the event of actual severe weather.
“We have all the precautions and planning in place for an event we don’t know is ever going to happen; don’t know when it might happen; or how severe it might be, if it happens,” said Paul Novak, director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
“Even with all of the uncertainty related to the possibility of a tornado, we know we have to take precautions and be prepared as a ‘just-in-case’ scenario,” he said.
With tornado alerts already posted this season in nearby Mercer County as well as a rising death toll in the mid-western U.S. following devastating tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., Mississippi, Arkansas, Minnesota, Massachusetts and elsewhere this season, local residents and those on campus are paying close attention to the weather.
“These reports serve as stark reminders to everyone at Slippery Rock University to always be aware of weather conditions around you, and to be prepared to take appropriate action quickly for your safety. Tornadoes are capable of destroying buildings and vehicles and pose a serious threat to human life,” he said.
“We all know that tornadoes, even severe weather, can hit very quickly at this time of year. People need to know what to do, and they need to do it, when warned of impending weather problems,” Novak said.
A 1946 tornado damaged the third-floor exterior wall of Old Main. Visitors can still see the damaged area on the westside of building where exterior bricks were miss-matched when repairs were made.
Weather officials report most communities have an average of only 13 minutes advance warning in the event of a tornado. Joplin residents had a 20-minute warning this spring, but still lost nearly 125 lives as the devastating tornado took out a one-mile wide swath through the downtown. Nearly 400 people have been killed this year by tornadoes, including some 250 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The typical tornado season in the local region runs April through July, with May and June the peak months. However, a tornado can evolve at any time of year – and in any state.
Within the region, Butler County reported an F5 tornado in 1985 – the worst on record. That tornado killed 18 county residents.
Novak said his office, as well as University Police, the Butler County 911 Center and others monitor the U.S. Weather Service, which is responsible for issuing severe weather conditions. SRU is prepared to launch into action should the service issue a tornado alert or warning for Butler County, he said.
“In recent weeks, we have seen alerts for Lawrence and Mercer counties and we monitored those situations closely. Funnel clouds were reported in Mercer County, but on campus there was only high wind and rain,” he said.
“Our office urges everyone at SRU to take advantage of the free, e2campus emergency alert system available to students, faculty and staff. This system allows the University to send text messages, including tornado alerts, direct to a mobile phone, e-mail, wireless PDA, as well as RSS feeds, personalized Web pages from Google, My Yahoo and AOL,” he said.
Sign up may be completed at: http://www.sru.edu/PublicRelations/Pages/SRUAlerts.aspx.
“Another system available to our campus is the Metis Emergency Alert System. Installed in 2009, this system provides fast and accurate dissemination of information to buildings where the units are installed,” he said. The Metis System allows University Police to issue building- specific information or campuswide alerts about weather or other situations should the need arise.
SRU’s Emergency Operations Plan calls for those on campus to go to underground shelters or basements or substantial steel-framed or reinforced concrete building when possible. Those off campus should also seek substantial shelter at the lowest level possible. Interior bathrooms or closets are also recommended as well as interior door frames if no other safe area is available.
“The large brick buildings at Slippery Rock University are of reinforced construction and should provide adequate shelter,” Novak said.
When no basement is available, those affected should go to a small center room – a bathroom – or interior room with no windows or under a stairwell, he said. “Cover yourself by getting underneath furniture or using a mattress, furniture cushion or similar item for protection.”
Those caught in a vehicle should drive away from the tornado’s path at a right angle. “And as a last resort, if there is not time, or if you are out walking, take cover and lie flat in the nearest depression, such as a ditch, culvert or ravine,” he said.
“We urge those on campus on a regular basis to know where safe shelter is in each building,” Novak said.
“Even with the state-of-the-art technologies available today, it is important for everyone to remember that tornadoes can still occur with little or no warning,” he said.
Among the procedures in place is training for those involved in the SRU Conference Services Office. Conference services provides rental of campus facilities, including residence halls, academic buildings and other campus facilities to outside groups during the summer. More than 25,000 visitors make use of the various summer programs, including a host of sport-specific summer camps for athletes, as well as high school football team and marching band camps.
Lisa Weinzetl, director of the program, said in the event of a weather emergency, such as a tornado warning or watch, “We would follow the ‘Shelter in Place - Weather Emergency’ protocol” that calls for conference participants to move to the interior of the building away from windows until the threat passes.
“If camps are under way outside, the first responders have the ability to cancel/close a practice because of weather. We have cell phone numbers for each of the camp directors and each camp is assigned someone from the Office of Conference Services as a primary contact. In the event of warnings, we would immediately contact the camp director with that information. We also have the ability to get in touch quickly with all the first responders with that information.”
During the summer conference season, Weinzetl said her office also relies on Kevin Currie, director of residence life, and Mike Vigliotti, assistant director of residence life, who are responsible for residence hall operations.
Currie said all campus residence halls have clearly marked "Severe Weather Shelter" signs where residents would gather to wait out the storm.
The Residence Hall Living Guide urges students to watch television or listen to radios in the event of severe weather and to seek shelter on the lowest level of the building, away from windows.
Hall staff members are trained to gather residents/guests in safe areas of the building during weather emergencies. “We work to make sure they know to stay away from windows in a weather emergency,” Novak said.
The Student Government Association Child Care Center, located in SRU’s McKay Education Building, is also well prepared for weather and other emergencies, according to Lisa Ringer, center director.
“We are required by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare” to have an Emergency Operations Plan – and we do.” she said. The center operates during the academic year and offers special day camp programs during the summer.
The emergency plan calls for “sheltering in place” if the children are in McKay. “We are fortunate to have a safe hallway just outside our regular classroom area, so we would just gather there in an emergency. It is an interior, reinforced area without windows, so we should be safe,” she said.
There are also plans for finding safe shelter should the children be away from the classroom or forced to evacuate the building because of some other emergency, such as a fire, Ringer said.
The DPW requires the center to have non-perishable food and water supplies along with flashlights and a battery-operated radio.
“We regularly practice emergency drills, and we time how long it takes to evacuate the classroom and assemble in the hallway,” Ringer said.
She said all of her staff is signed up for SRU’s e2campus, emergency alert system, as a way of getting early warnings of any potential problems.
John Bonando, assistant vice president of student life, reports SRU has staged mock-drills to evacuate campus residence halls in the event of emergencies, such as a tornado, as well as outlined procedures for “sheltering in place” in secure hallways during weather or other appropriate emergencies.
“We also staged a mock tornado event with the president’s cabinet in which the group assembled at the Emergency Operations Center to address changing weather conditions. Participants were scored on their reactions and decisions by students in our public safety program,” Bonando said.
In Slippery Rock, the Slippery Rock Volunteer Fire Department is equipped with an exterior siren that Ron Steele, president of the fire company, said would be blown in the event a tornado warning being issued. The siren, which is also sometimes heard on campus, would alert borough residents and those living in nearby apartments. The typical alert is a continuous broadcast of the siren.
He said the system is also capable of public address announcements should the need arise.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania’s premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.