NORMAN — City officials say this might be the last tornado season that four schools will be designated as public storm shelters.
The city has public shelters at Whittier and Irving middle schools, Cleveland Elementary School and Little Axe High School, but none is certified as a tornado safe shelter, Fire Chief James Fullingim said.
Whittier Middle School affords a higher level of safety than the other schools and is safer than a mobile home park that is nearby, but the others don't meet minimum safety standards, he said.
Fullingim discussed the problem with city council members during a study session this week.
The risks of getting to the schools outweigh the benefits for most people, the chief said.
“People have a false sense of security about schools,” he said. “We believe ‘sheltering in place' is a safer option for most people.”
The public shelters often are overcrowded, and there is no way to limit their use to just mobile home park residents, Fullingim said.
When a storm hits during school hours, he said, “it also poses a safety concern for the school. You're letting people inside the school that you don't know anything about, while students are there.”
Everyone should have a plan of where to go or what to do when a tornado threatens, he said.
Fire department officials will work with residents to develop a plan, he said. Officials particularly want to work with mobile home park residents and apartment dwellers to help them come up with a plan, Fullingim said.
City council members said they favored keeping the public shelters open this tornado season to allow time to educate the public on why they are being closed and what alternative safety measures they should take.
Picking a safe spot in your home is better than getting in a car and driving around looking for shelter at the last minute, Fullingim said.
“We've discovered that people drive to Norman from places like Moore to seek shelter. That's not a safe thing to do, and it leads to overcrowding at the shelters,” he said.
The designated public shelters will remain in use until July 1 but may be closed after that, city officials said.