FORT LEE, Va. (March 10, 2011) -"When I hear the siren now, I cringe. (It's) no longer a sound I can ignore. After seeing first-hand the power of these storms and the results of the damaging winds that ripped through our post on Dec. 31, tornado warnings get my full attention these days. I will never half-heartedly dismiss them again."
Those are the words of an Army civilian employee at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Just 10 weeks ago on New Year's Eve, an EF-3 tornado packing winds in excess of 136 mph tore through a military housing area toppling trees, wrecking power lines and leveling homes. Only four minor injuries were reported, since many residents were away on holiday leave, but 160 structures were left destroyed or uninhabitable.
During a Jan. 1 interview, Maj. Gen. David Quantock, the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and FLW commanding general, cited other factors that contributed to the low injury count and zero fatalities. They included training, public service announcements on what to do in the event of a tornado, sirens and the "giant voice" or post-wide message broadcasts through speakers located on the installation. Team Leonard Wood had 15 minutes notice that significant weather was imminent, he said, and this allowed post personnel to seek cover and most likely saved some lives.
What more needs to be said when considering the importance of Virginia's statewide tornado drill on Tuesday? Fort Lee will participate in the activity, and installation leaders here hope that no employee or resident will lose sight of its importance or the recent disaster that demonstrated how vulnerable any community, to include an Army installation, can be when Mother Nature unleashes her wrath.
"Let's do this the right way," said Don Bradshaw, the DPTMS director who oversees emergency response planning and the functions of the Installation Operations Center here. "Take advantage of this exercise by truly rehearsing your shelter in place and tornado response plans. As the commanding general at Fort Leonard Wood noted, the payoff can be very significant if the real thing comes along."
To prepare for the upcoming drill, DPTMS recommends the following:
• Make sure all employees are aware of the tornado drill.
• Ensure everyone understands your office emergency response plan and knows where the safest places are in your building during a tornado. Response plans should be published by building managers and directed by the senior building occupant.
• Look at your surroundings and the most likely hazards in your building. The safest places are typically the basement away from any windows. If there is no basement, go to a windowless interior room such as a closet on the lowest level of the building.
• Encourage your employees to visit www.vaemergency.com to get information about tornado preparedness.
• Visit the Ready Virginia website - www.readyvirginia.gov/getakit/index.cfm - for helpful emergency response information. The Ready Army website - www.acsim. army.mil/readyarmy - also offers valuable guidance to "get a kit, make a plan and stay informed."
• Ensure all personnel update their records in the Army Disaster Personnel Accountability and Assessment System - https://adpaas.army.mil.
On Tuesday, the operations center will announce the start of the drill (tornado watch) through e-mail, using LEEKEY. The post-wide siren system and interior voice will signal the tornado "Warning" and the subsequent "All Clear." There also will be training conducted by members of the Crisis Action Team to focus recovery efforts to expedite return to normal levels of basic services following a tornado should one impact Fort Lee.
Employees should act as though a tornado warning has been issued for the immediate area or a tornado has been sighted near the building. They should move as quickly as possible to the nearest safe place in the building. Be sure to use stairs to reach the lowest level of a building. Avoid using an elevator.
In a real tornado emergency, once people reach safe areas, they would crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down and cover their heads with their hands. Rehearse this procedure to check understanding of the correct position or identify individuals who may require assistance because of physical limitations.
As is the case during an actual tornado emergency, Team Lee members should wait for the "All Clear" before they resume their normal activities.
After the drill, the building manager should document any necessary changes in the shelter-in-place procedures. These are just a few of the questions that should be asked:
• Do more safe areas need to be identified?
• Are the safe areas too cluttered and in need of cleaning to make them more accessible?
• Do employees know the fastest routes to take to safe areas?
• Is a better method for letting employees know of an approaching tornado needed?
There's an old expression "practice makes perfect," or in this case, practice increases the chance of survival, Bradshaw noted. Each year, scores of people are killed or seriously injured by tornadoes, sometimes despite advance notification. Some do not hear the warnings while others choose to believe a tornado would not actually affect them.
"Knowing what to do could save your life in the event a tornado threatens your area," Bradshaw said. "After you have received the warning or observed threatening skies, you must make the decision to seek shelter before the storm arrives. It could be the most important decision you will ever make."