Providing Safer School Communities

Providing Safer School Communities

Understanding grant requirements helps fund life-saving building projects

Many of us have experienced it. The dark greenish-gray sky and the strange stillness that happens just as ominous storm clouds gather. Even before a cell phone signals a weather alert, instinct tells us to find secure shelter, and with good reason.

While only a small fraction of storms create extreme weather conditions, the United States has more tornadoes than any other country in the world. With an average of over 1,000 tornadoes per year, no state is free from their threat. In 2020, the U.S. experienced a particularly active North Atlantic hurricane season with a record-breaking 11 storms making landfall—including six hurricanes.

Because huge storms move so swiftly and in such unpredictable ways, schools need to be prepared to protect students quickly. Extreme weather tragedies are caused by flying debris, so it is of utmost importance to construct storm shelters to code, including adequately protecting windows and securing areas with storm doors rated to meet ICC500 testing criteria for extreme weather.

Evolving Building Standards for Increased Protection

To meet the current IBC requirements, all educational facilities with more than 50 occupants must provide a safe room to protect students and staff from tornadoes and other extreme weather events in certain areas of the country such as Tornado Alley in accordance with ICC500 standards.

In addition, educational facilities are subject to ICC-500 standards in states or localities that have adopted IBC 2015 or newer and are in an area that has an increased risk of tornadoes (ICC500/FEMA-P361 provides a map for guidance). This requirement applies to any new construction, retrofit addition, or significant improvement project and is included in 2015 IBC and 2018 IBC. ICC-500 provides the minimum requirements for safety relative to the design, construction, and installation of storm shelters built for protection from high winds and impacts associated with extreme weather.

Manufacturers offer advanced rolling steel doors designed specifically for safe room protection against life-threatening tornadoes and hurricanes. However, only a few rolling door products are tested and certified to meet both ICC-500 and FEMA P-361 standards – a requirement to be included in an ICC500 rated shelter. It is important to specify a door from a manufacturer that meets these necessary standards to receive a FEMA grant, including the newly instituted BRIC option.

There is another factor to note when schools are planning to apply for funding. All FEMA safe rooms designed and constructed for educational facilities must follow the most recent edition of the FEMA publication Safe Rooms for Tornadoes and Hurricanes: Guidance for Community and Residential Safe Rooms (FEMA P-361).

Funding Safe Rooms and Storm Shelters in School Facilities

Storm shelters and safe rooms are common throughout Tornado Alley, a region that encompasses part of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and eastern Colorado. It is an area infamous for having the most powerful and destructive storms. However, these life-saving spaces are not as common nationwide, even though tornadoes have touched down in all 50 states.

Lack of funding and challenges navigating building codes and construction guidelines are frequent obstacles to making storm shelters a reality for many school districts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) replaced its Pre-Disaster Mitigation program with the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) competitive grant program in 2020 to facilitate funding and encourage advanced planning for extreme weather. The new BRIC program supports state and local governments by encouraging them to shift their focus to proactively protecting their communities.

BRIC applications are reviewed on an annual basis, and school districts may submit safe room or storm shelter projects that meet the following requirements:

  • Cost-effective
  • Reduces or eliminates risk and damage from future natural hazards— such as extreme weather
  • Follows one of the latest International Building Codes (IBC)— either 2015 or 2018
  • Aligns with an applicable hazard mitigation plan
  • Meets environmental and historic preservation (EHP) requirements

Wind Load and What It Means for Your Facility

By specifying commercial rolling doors and shutters that meet strict wind load requirements and are certified by a third party as being compliant to ICC500 standards as part of a storm shelter project, schools are able to design unique, open, light-filled spaces while meeting IBC requirements and ensuring they are compliant with International Code Council (ICC) 500.

Considering the codes are guidelines that echo the minimum requirements for safety, understanding what wind load is —and why it is important in storm shelters— should be a cornerstone of one’s knowledge on the topic.

Wind load refers to any pressure or force that wind exerts on a building. There are three types of wind forces, including uplift, shear and lateral wind load. These are all common in a tornado, hurricane, or strong storm with straight-line winds. Shear wind load is a horizontal pressure on vertical structural elements. This kind of pressure is especially concerning because it can change wildly based on weather conditions.

Extreme weather, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and thunderstorms with straight-line winds put acute forces on a building. This can cause doors to blow out due to the storm’s wild swings in positive and negative pressure.

That is why rolling door and shutter products are tested, for both static and operable wind load. Static wind load specifies the maximum wind load at which a door is able to remain safely in place while closed. Operable wind load specifies the maximum wind load at which a door is able safely operate without the curtain of the door being hung up in the guides and stuck in an open position. Operable wind load may be a concern for schools that serve as community shelters during hurricanes. For instance, loading dock-rolling doors may need to operate during the storm to accept emergency supplies and necessities.

Calculating wind loads and determining which product works best can be a tricky science, especially because the calculation not only includes wind speed, but also 10 other factors for accuracy and safety.

It is vital for decision makers to reach out to rolling door manufacturers to learn more about wind load requirements, wind load calculations, and rolling door options. Manufacturers’ architectural specialists and consultants use a Door & Access Systems Manufacturers Association (DASMA) calculator to identify comprehensive wind load needs and create custom closure solutions. They also work closely with school safety administrators and specifiers to ensure they are making the best decision when it comes to student, faculty and administration safety.

At The Intersection of Safety and Design

With the implementation of these stringently tested rolling doors, architects can include windows and natural light in their design of modular classroom pods, gymnasiums, and cafeterias—creating positive, learning-focused spaces that can also transform into ICC-500/ FEMA P-361 rated safe rooms when needed. A single maximum protection-rolling door can be used to cover multiple openings or even banks of windows, and activated by a building alarm or the turn of a key.

The rolling door can deploy on alarm with no manual intervention, allowing faculty and staff to focus on the safety of the students, while also preventing them from witnessing the storm and—most importantly—protecting them from violent winds and flying debris. After the storm, the door coils back into the structure and out of sight until it needed again.

Proper planning enables school districts to obtain funding and gain valuable insight into the standards and codes needed to meet life-saving storm shelters and safe rooms. By selecting the appropriate rolling doors and working closely with their manufacturers, architects can design dual-use areas that provide inspiration for students and protect them from extreme weather when the need arises.

This article originally appeared in the September / October 2021 issue of Campus Security Today.


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