Always Investigating

Nuclear shelter-in-place plan could keep parents, students separated for days

As nuclear rhetoric and missile tests continue from North Korea, Hawaii emergency officials say be ready to "Get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned."

Always Investigating found out what that means for family and school preparations in the unlikely event of a nuclear strike, and it may mean days apart from your loved ones while authorities sort out the aftermath.

As tough talk escalates and places like Hawaii are mentioned as potential targets, authorities say we have to prepare even with slim likelihood there would ever be a direct hit here. What we found out has a lot of schools about to scramble to get ready, and parents may not like what they hear.

If North Korea were to fire a nuclear missile our way, people in Hawaii would have under 20 minutes to get inside and stay inside.

Emergency officials say those steps should be an immediate move to "shelter in place." Vern Miyagi heads the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HiEMA) and has been working with federal, military, even radiation experts on a plan.

"Don't try to decide where that shelter-in-place is during the time when the missile is incoming," Miyagi said. "You should have that ahead of time. Driving to work, where would I go? At work, where would I go? Coming home, where would I go? And at home, where would I go? And for your family too, your wife, your spouse, your children, your grandchildren, so that when you shelter in place, you don't have to worry about where they're going. You know where they're going to go all ahead of time."

Shelter in Place for Schools
  1. Identify safe areas in each school building.
  2. Issue sheltering alert.
  3. Direct students, staff and visitors to pre-determined safe areas or rooms.
  4. Account for all students after arriving in safe area.
  5. Do not allow outside air to mix with inside air where mechanical ventilation systems are used. Shut down air conditioning units.
  6. Close all exterior doors and windows.
  7. Use plastic sheeting, wet cloths, and duct tape, etc, to seal windows, cracks, etc., to minimize indoor air contamination.
  8. Ensure all persons remain in safe areas until "all clear" is given by administrator or emergency responders.

But what if that time comes within a school day when hundreds of thousands of kids are on campuses and not with their parents?

"Right now we talk about 14 days for radiation to come down, but for the schools, we're looking at about 48 hours that we can assess and then evacuate the students," Miyagi said.

Always Investigating asked, what do the schools know to do at this point?

"We've just had about three briefings with the complex area superintendents of the DOE (Department of Education) and they have a lot of good questions about how long do we stay, how do we protect the kids, how do we take care of the kids and so on," Miyagi said.

We had the same questions, and here's what the Hawaii Department of Education is working on now:

"When that news came out people were coming to us going, 'Are you really gonna keep (students 14 days)?' and I said, 'I certainly hope not,’" said Dann Carlson, DOE assistant superintendent. "That's why we sat down with HiEMA and in discussions with them and the experts who understand radiation and how this stuff falls out, seven hours is kind of a critical time. If you're in a really hot part, in close proximity, then in seven hours, 90 percent of the radiation effects basically subside. That's kind of one window we're looking at, and in talking with them, within 48 hours is probably the absolute worst case."

The Department of Education sent an internal message to complex area superintendents in August 2017.

The DOE says it also provided complexes with frequently asked questions with answers for ballistic missile preparedness, and the "Get inside, stay inside, stay tuned" chart. (Click here for more information.)

We also asked, what does "shelter in place" mean if the classroom is the place? Is it the old "duck-and-cover" drills or has it changed over the years?

"Not necessarily (duck and cover). It's just you want to get in an enclosed environment," Carlson said. "You close all the windows, you close the doors, and the idea would be we would most likely have some cellophane and tape in each of the classrooms, so if they have the time, they can tape up. You're just trying to make it an airtight environment to keep the bad air out and keep the good air inside."

What about essential supplies? And if kids are kept in place, when can parents come reunite?

"The idea of the parents are going to come, so we need to work out the protocols, because our advice to the parents is shelter in place," Miyagi said.

"I would say worst case that we're trying to plan and make sure that the schools have supplies for -- water and basic food -- to keep everybody surviving would be for 48 hours," Carlson said. "We're trying to figure out how to execute that. We've already provided some initial guidance, but after having further discussions with HiEMA, within the next month or so we should have some guidance out to the field and out to the communities as to again how to best prepare."

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Always Investigating asked the DOE how it plans to deal with the social and emotional challenges that would come along with the shelter period.

"That's what, to me, hats off to our principals who are the ones in the field really feeling it," Carlson said. "When you're talking about parents, they are going to be irate, and that's understandable. You're going to have some teachers that some are going to handle it beautifully, others are going to struggle with it, but that's what our principals are doing on a day-to-day basis."

Hawaii public schools have nearly 180,000 kids in their care. The Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, which has as members many of the private schools that educate and care for 36,000 kids, says: "Our schools are taking precautionary measures, which would be outlined by individual schools, but they are turning to state and government agencies for recommendations and advice."

Preparedness List (similar to a hurricane kit)

  • 14 days of food, water and medication
  • Battery powered AM-FM radio
  • FRS/GMRS hand-held walkietalkie
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Important documents in plastic bag
  • Whistle, blankets, and tarp
  • Personal hygiene items
  • First-aid kit
  • Cash in small bills

Besides the school-specific directions coming soon from HiEMA and the DOE, how will kids know what to do?

"We do shelter-in-place drills," Carlson said. "We have five different drills we expect to be done annually at the schools, so some are tsunami evacuation type drills where they actually evacuate up to high ground, earthquake-type drills, obviously your standard fire drills. We do some lockdowns as well. We do train for those unfortunate scenarios. They usually space those out through the year, so whether they did their fire drill first or their tsunami drill first, we're not dictating that."

Schools file a quarterly safety report with the DOE listing what drills they’ve done so far. The first was turned in Oct. 7, the next is due Dec. 12.

Always Investigating asked to see the safety report data on how many public schools have already their annual shelter-in-place drills. The DOE declined to disclose that to us, saying "the first quarter report wouldn't be a fair representation since schools have the whole year to complete these drills."

We asked if they’d be asking campuses to act quickly if students have not been shown already, and their Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness Branch responded: "HIDOE will encourage schools to accomplish their shelter-in-place drills sooner than later if they have not done them already."

Both DOE and HiEMA remind the public this is just preparing for a slim-chance, worst-case scenario.

"There's no change in the risk level," Carlson said. "Nothing has changed, but we are getting asked these questions, so these are the expected procedures you would follow if something like this were to happen."

"This is very, very unlikely," Miyagi said. "Number one, if Kim Jong-Un pushes the button, he's dead. It's regime suicide for his entire country. The retaliation would just overwhelm him.

"The other part is that he has a lot of technological challenges: Would his warhead survive re-entry? Can he aim? Can he target anybody? What is his effect of that?" Miyagi continued. "The other thing is we come under Pacific Command's defensive umbrella. It's a key note in the Defense Department's headquarters. That's why I say it's very unlikely, however we still have to prepare."

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