Why cities & counties should participate in tornado drills (and how to do it)

Tornado drills sharpen severe weather safety plans and make local emergency management practices better.


Community participation in tornado drills is integral to the safety and survival of residents during tornado season, which lasts from March to July in the U.S. with the Midwest and Southeast at greatest risk.

According to The Mother Nature Network, the U.S. averages 1,200 twisters a year, more than any other country on Earth, and their intensity is infamous — the worst can be a mile wide, rotate at 300 mph and plow along at 70 mph.

To keep citizens safe, local government leaders and emergency managers should implement tornado drills on a municipal level and encourage schools, businesses and families to prepare for a potential tornado touching down in their communities.

Many cities and states participate in Severe Weather Preparedness Week, a program sponsored by the National Weather Service with the aim of building a “Weather-Ready Nation, one that is prepared for extreme weather, water and climate events.” A Federal Emergency Management Agency playbook, which can be reviewed and downloaded below, can help organizations and facilitators prepare with discussion advice, tabletop exercises and how to partner with local organizations to improve and strengthen emergency management practices.

Nashville Adds 20 Sirens

In 2013, Davidson County, Tennessee, which includes Nashville, grew its Metro Tornado Warning Siren System by 20 sites, going from 73 to 93 countywide.

Each siren is located in a public gathering place selected on the basis of outdoor population and population density, according to Nashville’s Office of Emergency Management.

The entire system was also upgraded with new siren equipment that emitted an easier-to-hear warning signal, which is more like an old air-raid warning rather than the mechanical tone previously used. The expanded, upgraded system makes the coverage area bigger and broader across Davidson County, according to the office.

“The Tornado Warning Siren system is to help those in outdoor areas be aware that a tornado warning has been issued for any portion of the county,” the report states. “A Tornado Warning means a tornado may have been indicated on Doppler radar or a trained spotter has spotted a funnel cloud or tornado in progress.”

Raleigh Takes Time to Practice with School Drills

Students at Hunter Elementary School in Raleigh,North Carolina, participated in a tornado drill last March, as part of Severe Weather Awareness Week, according to the The News & Observer.

After an intercom warning that a loud noise was imminent, Nick Petro of the National Weather Service stood in the hall with a hand-held device to help test the state’s Emergency Alert System. That signaled to students to file into the hallway.

“(The students) lined the edges facing the wall and packed in close before dropping to their knees and curling into a ball to cover their heads.”

After the drill, Petro explained to a fifth-grade class exactly how tornadoes are formed and demonstrated it with an upside-down tornado simulator.

Petro said every organization should a severe weather safety plan.

You want to have it written down, you want to have it practiced because seconds count.”

Watch a video of the Hunter Elementary tornado drill, which includes comments from the children practicing the drill:

Statewide Tornado Drill in Kentucky

Kentucky participates in Severe Weather Preparedness Week annually with a statewide tornado drill that includes a test of its tornado message with audible alerts on most available media.

“Across Kentucky, outdoor warning sirens will sound, weather alert radios will activate, and television and radio stations will broadcast the alert along with mobile devices,” according to a story in Kentucky Today about the 2019 drill. “This drill will give citizens the opportunity to practice tornado safety measures.

The article encouraged all Kentuckians -- “businesses, hospitals, nursing homes, educators and government agencies” to participate in the tornado drill and update their emergency plans.

Tornado Drill Tips

Ready, a National public service campaign meant to promote preparedness through public involvement provides tips on how to stay safe before, during and after a tornado.

Find safe shelter right away when under a tornado warning:

  • If you can safely get to a sturdy building, then do so immediately.
  • Go to a safe room, basement or storm cellar.
  • If you are in a building with no basement, then get to a small interior room on the lowest level.
  • Stay away from windows, doors and outside walls.
  • Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You’re safer in a low, flat location.
  • Watch out for flying debris that can cause injury or death.
  • Use your arms to protect your head and neck.

How to stay safe when a tornado threatens:

  • Know your area’s tornado risk. In the U.S., the Midwest and the Southeast have a greater risk for tornadoes.
  • Know the signs of a tornado, including a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud, an approaching cloud of debris or a loud roar — similar to a freight train.
  • Sign up for your community’s warning system. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio also provide emergency alerts. If your community has sirens, then become familiar with the warning tone.
  • Pay attention to weather reports. Meteorologists can predict when conditions might be right for a tornado.
  • Identify and practice going to a safe shelter in the event of high winds, such as a safe room built using FEMA criteria or a storm shelter built to ICC 500 standards. The next best protection is a small, interior, windowless room on the lowest level of a sturdy building.
  • Consider constructing your own safe room that meets FEMA or ICC 500 standards.

How to survive during a tornado:

  • Immediately go to a safe location that you identified.
  • Take additional cover by shielding your head and neck with your arms and putting materials such as furniture and blankets around you.
  • Listen to EAS, NOAA Weather Radio or local alerting systems for current emergency information and instructions.
  • Do not try to outrun a tornado in a vehicle.
  • If you are in a car or outdoors and cannot get to a building, cover your head and neck with your arms and cover your body with a coat or blanket, if possible.

How to be safe after a tornado:

  • Keep listening to EAS, NOAA Weather Radio and local authorities for updated information.
  • If you are trapped, cover your mouth with a cloth or mask to avoid breathing dust. Try to send a text, bang on a pipe or wall or use a whistle instead of shouting.
  • Stay clear of fallen power lines or broken utility lines.
  • Do not enter damaged buildings until you are told that they are safe.
  • Save your phone calls for emergencies. Phone systems are often down or busy after a disaster. Use text messaging or social media to communicate with family and friends.
  • Be careful during cleanup. Wear thick-soled shoes, long pants and work gloves.

Tornado Safety Tips for Businesses

Businesses should go the extra mile by creating an emergency action plan and ensure personal safety should a tornado occur.

Here are some additional safety tips for businesses from OSHA.

  • Develop a system for knowing who is in the building in the event of an emergency
  • Establish an alarm system to warn workers
    • Test systems frequently
    • Develop plans to communicate warnings to personnel with disabilities or who do not speak English
  • Account for workers, visitors and customers as they arrive in the shelter
    • Use a prepared roster or checklist
    • Take a head count
  • Assign specific duties to workers in advance; create checklists for each specific responsibility. Designate and train workers alternates in case the assigned person is not there or is injured

Review the FEMA Prepareathon Playbook for Tornadoes:

Prepareathon Playbook Tornado Final 090414 508 by Andrea Fox on Scribd

Columnist Larry Claflin, Jr., is a freelance writer based in New England and co-founder and former executive director of the non-profit Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. He is fascinated with the mechanics of city government and cultural development in cities.