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Community safe rooms fuel design work

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The tornado that hit Joplin May 22 brought a renewed awareness of the need for safe places to hide, but some Springfield engineers and architects were already aware of this need and working to help schools and communities build grant-funded safe rooms.

Brian Orr, a structural engineer at Toth & Associates Inc., is among them. Since 2004, he and others at the firm have volunteered their time to help communities and school districts gain federal or state grants that can cover up to 75 percent of the costs of a building project to include safe rooms.

“If you’re a school district (with) half the money and you’re trying to raise the other half, it can be a great way to build a safe room,” Orr said.

A safe room is defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a room that provides “near-absolute life safety protection” during events such as tornadoes and hurricanes. The rooms are designed to withstand EF-5 tornadoes such as the one that devastated Joplin, said Ryan Nicholls, director of the Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management.

Traditional construction methods create buildings that can withstand winds of about 90 mph, but FEMA safe rooms are designed for wind loads of 250 miles an hour or missiles of 150 miles an hour, Orr said.

FEMA safe rooms may not look any different than other structures, and they can double as gymnasiums or lunchrooms for schools and other entities. The difference, however, is in the materials used to build the structures, such as prestressed concrete instead of standard masonry. To qualify for state or federal grant funds, the shelters must meet structural guidelines outlined by FEMA and the International Code Council.

The size of a project that will receive grant funds is determined by the population within a half-mile radius of the safe room site, Nicholls said.

“You don’t want a lot of people driving a long distance during a storm,” he added.

While some entities choose to work with grant writers who charge a percentage of grants obtained as a fee, Toth and Paragon Architecture Inc. offer assistance pursuing grants at no charge in hopes of being hired to do design work or project management of safe room construction if the grants are received.

“We could easily charge money for this service,” Orr said. “But we’ve kind of taken the approach all along that we’re able to do it for free and it’s a benefit for them, so it just makes sense to do it that way.”

While there is an altruistic component to volunteering their hours – about 2,000 hours statewide in the last year – providing that help also makes sense from a business perspective, Orr said, even though in some cases other firms will submit the winning bids.

“If they get funded, hopefully we’ll get selected to do the design,” he said.  

Last year, Toth & Associates employees secured more than $40 million in grants for 30 projects statewide, and of those, the firm is working on nearly 20 safe room projects.

Of those funds, $10 million is headed to Greene County for seven FEMA safe room projects. Three are for Springfield Public Schools at Jeffries, Westport and Hillcrest, plus one each in Ash Grove, Fair Grove, Willard and Republic. Others in the region include two in Nixa, one in Clever and another in Monett.

Toth & Associates was chosen to provide structural engineering design for the projects in Ash Grove, Fair Grove and Willard, and it will handle grant management for the Springfield jobs, Orr said, noting that firms haven’t yet been chosen to work on the Republic project.

For Brad Erwin, a principal with Paragon Architecture, helping school districts and others receive funding for safe-room projects is “a no-brainer.”

“My personal drive with those facilities is, when I was in junior high, our town up in Illinois was struck by an EF-5 tornado, and it sliced through the town pretty good. Thirty people died in a town of less than 5,000,” Erwin said. “The images are very clear in my head still.”

Erwin said his firm assisted about a dozen entities last year in filing notices of interest, the first step toward securing FEMA grant funding. Paragon Architecture is collaborating with Toth & Associates to provide architectural design services for the safe rooms in Willard and Fair Grove, and its projects also include a safe room for the East Newton County School District in Granby, Erwin said.

While Paragon’s experience in FEMA safe room projects is growing, Erwin isn’t ready to claim expert status. He pointed to the Wichita, Kan., public school system as a leader in safe-room construction, noting that he and others from Paragon are heading there this fall to see what they can learn about safe room projects, which account for about one-fourth of the firm’s design work.

“(Wichita schools) have 36 facilities, and 28 have safe rooms. They’ve had a really big initiative over eight to 10 years. Every opportunity they get, they put a safe room in a school,” Erwin said.

If all of the grants Paragon helped entities pursue in the last year are awarded and the safe room projects move forward, more than 12,000 people will be in close proximity to the protection the rooms would offer.

“Even if two-thirds or three-quarters of those people in the next year and a half, two years have an opportunity to go to a safe room, that’s a pretty good feeling, ” Erwin said.[[In-content Ad]]

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