National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce
shelter sign  Preparedness Guide for Schools


  Todd Shea
  Warning Coordination Meteorologist
  National Weather Service La Crosse
   Last Updated: 10/19/15


Severe weather preparedness is essential for ALL schools and should be taken seriously. There have been numerous examples through the years of storms hitting schools (including loss of life!).

These guidelines were developed for school administrators or Emergency Management personnel to help develop a preparedness plan that fits their specific scenario. There are a few "disclaimers" that should be noted up front:

  • There is no one solution that fits every case.
  • Every school needs its own customized safety plan.
  • There is no way to cover every possibility.
  • Every storm is different and may bring different threats.

A unique plan should be developed for your school using these guidelines in cooperation with your experience and local considerations.

If there is one phrase, that works in nearly all scenarios, it is - "Put as many walls between you and the storm as possible".


storm shelter map Before the Storm (Prepare / Practice)

Probably the most important part in this process is being ready BEFORE severe weather strikes. Be pro-active and take it seriously.

1) Educate yourself

Preparedness is easier when you understand the possible threat(s) and "lingo" used in the business. Do you know what a "WATCH" or "WARNING" are? Educate yourself  and your staff on severe weather and how the warning process works. This will help you understand the range of possibilities and limitations you have to plan for.

Hazardous Weather Outlooks (HWO) are available from the National Weather Service (NWS) that can alert you of expected hazards out through 7 days. Outlooks are available in both graphical form or a text format. These outlooks are broadcast over NOAA Weather Radio at the top and bottom of every hour (plus or minus a minute or two). You can also have these outlooks sent to your e-mail address. If you would like your e-mail address added to our list, send an e-mail to the La Crosse NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

2) Develop an Action Plan

If you currently do not have a severe weather action plan for your school, this will be a large part of your preparedness work. In fact, this entire document could be considered part of the plan. Your local or county Emergency Management director or local National Weather Service (NWS) office can assist in this process and provide guidance. Read the "disclaimers" listed in the introduction section again. The plan for your school will have to be tailored to your particular set up.

Physical Layout of School/Buildings - Closely examine the layout of your structure. You'll need to determine your designated shelter areas. Use a map of the school and physically tour the building(s) with your top school officials. You may also want to invite local fire department personnel, Emergency Management, or a member of the NWS to assist. Ideally students should be moved to the lowest level(s) possible, to interior rooms away from exterior walls and windows that may certainly fail in the event of a tornado or strong, damaging winds.

  • Interior, small rooms usually offer the best protection. Offices or bathrooms are usually favored locations.
  • Interior hallways are used by some, but avoid getting too close to outside door openings. If the hallway has glass doors at the end, it may not be a good choice. Hallways can also become a wind tunnel with dangerous debris flying through them. A hallway that zig-zags will be less likely to create a wind tunnel and should be relatively safer than a straight hallway.
  • Avoid exterior class rooms or rooms with lots of windows.
  • Avoid large span ceiling rooms like gymnasiums, auditoriums, cafeterias. You have to assume ceiling failure will occur.
  • Avoid portable classrooms.
  • Walls that face south and west are most likely to be hit by debris.  Watch for areas where wind and debris might concentrate.  Walls that share small, interior courtyards might be safer than other exterior walls. 

storm shelter map Shelter Considerations - There are many things to consider when mapping out your shelter areas. Also take into account non-routine school activities or other times the buildings are being used.


  • Travel Time - You should pick shelters where you can get students safely inside within 3 minutes. This will depend on the number of students, distance from the shelter, amount of space, etc.
  • Route - Choose direct routes to shorten travel time.  Do not have students cross through areas with larger span roofs or near windows and doors.
  • Size or Space - Ensure you have enough space to fit the number of students assigned to that shelter. Consider times of the day, class sizes, and special needs of students so you can handle each case. You may have to designate several shelters in different regions or zones of your building to accommodate everyone. Don't forget the school staff as well.
  • Construction - Review the quality of construction to ensure sturdy protection. Look for possible failures in the ceilings. Rooms or hallways with sky lights should usually be avoided.

Notification - Develop a method to notify every one to seek shelter. It could be a speaker system, special tone, or bell but ensure you have a backup method (air horn or megaphone) in case you lose electricity. Also ensure every one clearly knows what the notification signal is. Make sure the shelters are clearly marked as such, with arrows directing people to the "safer" areas.

School Bus Considerations - Include in your plan what bus drivers should do while at the school or during transportation.

  • Communication with the drivers is key via a central dispatch point or with school officials. Weather updates should be provided to give them advance notice of possible severe weather.
  • Include them in your practice sessions.
  • Drivers should be aware of possible shelters they can use if needed along their routes, such as caves, basements, study structures, etc.
  • School buses can easily be moved, blown over, or picked up and tossed in and around storms.  Do not risk staying inside a bus.
  • If a Tornado Watch is in effect, coordinate ahead of time what actions the bus drivers should take in case a tornado is sighted or warned for.

kids sheltering 3) Practice & Review Your Action Plan

  • You should practice and review your severe weather action plan relatively often. If your plan is new, a few practice run-throughs are suggested in case you need to revise shelter choices before finalizing it. A practice will not only help confirm the validity of your plan and illustrate any deficiencies to be addressed, but can educate your students and staff on proper responses during severe weather.

    Your plan should be reviewed at least annually, and anytime changes are made to the physical building, shelters, or classroom sizes. A good chance to practice is during the annual statewide Tornado Drills held in late March or April each spring.

    Inform parents of your action plan which might involve students remaining or delayed at school beyond regular hours if severe weather is threatening.  Some schools will even cancel classes early on higher threat days.  (NOTE:  The debate on whether kids are safer at home or at school is on-going and varies on geographic area of the country and economic surroundings.)

4) Source of Weather Information

  • Another key in being prepared is having a good and dependable source of weather information. Even the best action plan is no good if incoming severe weather weather or related warnings are not monitored.

    You can monitor forecasts and predicted severe weather by using a decision support page like -

    Consider having multiple sources of weather information, including commercial radio, television, private services, a community outdoor siren, or the Internet.  You can sign up to receive text messages of watches and warnings from most television stations.

    You should also have a NOAA Weather Radio as a direct source of watches and warnings from the National Weather Service. A weather radio continuously monitors the issuance of these types of alerts and can give you advance notice allowing you time to plan or activate your action plan. A desktop model can be placed in a central office allowing full monitoring by administrative staff. A weather radio also has a battery back-up in case of power loss. Be sure to educate your staff on what to listen for when the radio activates its alert tones. (A weather radio can also be used during the winter months to monitor wind chill conditions during extreme cold.)

    A program through Homeland Security has provided weather radios to numerous schools across the country. Check this web site for additional information on this program -

    Make sure the weather radio or other source of weather information is available even during non-routine school activities. In 2002, a high school in north central Wisconsin was hit by a tornado but the school's football team that was holding a practice did not hear the warning because the weather radio was locked in the office.

    Like other aspects of proper preparation, a pro-active approach is needed when monitoring local weather conditions. Although warning lead times are increasing by the National Weather Service, you should not assume you will always receive a warning or "heads up" of threatening weather. If you spot a tornado or severe weather approaching, you should follow your action plans even if a warning is not heard. Consider attending a SKYWARN severe weather spotter training class or designate staff members as spotters around your school. Bus drivers can benefit from this type of training as well so they can learn basic cloud formations that may be pre-cursors of impending severe weather. Spotter training is held in March and April each year.

5) Other Preparation Ideas

  • Close curtains and blinds before storms approach. The curtains or blinds may stop some debris from blowing in if the windows shatter.
  • Consider postponing assemblies or other large gatherings if they involve use of large span roofs or rooms (Gymnasiums, Auditoriums, etc.).
  • Consider postponing or canceling sporting events if severe weather is expected.

state line tornado During the Storm (Act)

1) Monitor Weather Conditions

  • Use your source of weather information to keep abreast of approaching storms, their severity, and reported severe weather. A NOAA Weather Radio will alert you if any watches or warnings are in effect or issued for your area. If a WATCH is issued, pay special attention to changing weather conditions and be ready to take action if a WARNING is issued or severe weather strikes.

You can monitor forecasts and approaching severe weather by using our decision support page at:

If your school has a designated storm spotter, have them be in position. Short range radios might be a good idea for communication between the spotter(s) and school administrator or office.

If amateur radio operators or fire department personnel do storm spotting in your community, their radio traffic can be monitored via a scanner. That may be another option for real-time storm conditions.

2) ACT!

  • Respect all warnings and assume severe weather will strike your area. Be safe instead of sorry by treating all weather threats seriously. Understand that you will have false alarms but that is far better than not being ready when your facility is struck.

    Use your action plan by ensuring:

    • Notification of impending severe weather is successful and complete, and
    • Everyone seeks proper shelter or follows the school's plan as detailed.

    If time allows, take note of problems that develop while the plan is being used.

    Do not go near windows if severe weather is striking. Do not try to open windows or doors to equalize pressure. The pressure difference in a storm is not what damages buildings - it is the strong wind and flying debris associated with the storm or tornado that will cause damage and could explode glass or exterior walls.

    Continue to monitor weather conditions until you are sure thunderstorms have passed.  Most communities do not use sirens for "all clear" notification.  If the sirens continue, the threat may still be there.

    School Bus Considerations -

    • If buses are parked at the school and severe weather is expected shortly or occurring, do not let students leave the school or their shelters. Do not load the buses.
    • If buses are in the middle of transporting, ensure they are notified of impending severe weather or active warnings.
    • In the event of a tornado or very strong winds, the bus should be evacuated by moving the students to a shelter or building.
    • When in open country, move the students off the bus and into a ditch. Move the bus away from where students are seeking refuge in case it is blown over or tossed.

green light tornado After the Storm (Review)

1) Damage Assessment

  • Once you are confident the storm has passed, assess the building(s) for damage before releasing people from their shelters. Exterior areas, including playgrounds, should also be checked. Obviously if damage is noted, you may need to keep people in shelters or relocate them to safer areas.

2) All Clear

  • Announce an "all clear" message or use pre-determined signals to alert sheltered students or staff that it is safe to return to their rooms.

3) Post Mortem Review

  • After every use, consider conducting a post mortem review of your severe weather action plan and the actions your facility did during the weather event. What worked well? What can be improved? What problems were noted? Meet with your staff and review each action item. Adjust or append your plan as needed, just as you would after the spring drill or other practices. Additional reference or guidance may be available via your county Emergency Management director or the NWS.

Reference Material