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How public tornado shelters work in Arkansas

Storm shelters are only thought of when a tornado or severe weather happens, but how do they work so the public can find a safe space?

LONOKE, Ark. — Tornado shelters aren't something we really think about until we need them and Monday night was one of those nights. 

But when do they open and how does it all work?

As Director of Maintenance and Operations at the Lonoke School District, Duane Peckat has a pretty important role when the weather is acting up.

"I make sure that our students and our staff get moved to the safe room safely," he said.

But on Monday night when the threats came in, Peckat's job took a bit of a shift.

"Actually, tornado was really close to my house, so my role was to come here to the tornado shelter," he said.

Before Peckat had to come there for safety, he worked with Lonoke Fire Chief Justin Whittenburg to make sure the school's safe rooms were ready to go.

"Once the city of Lonoke becomes under a tornado warning, we assess the situation and go ahead and set the sirens off," Whittenburg said.

Whittenburg and the police chief are in charge of the siren system for the town, which Whittenburg said isn't easy.

"Because you're alarming 4,300 people or 4,500 people," he said.

Whether they open the safe rooms before the sirens go off or at the same time is a case by case basis.

If they unlock the doors simultaneously Whittenburg said usually it buys people enough time to drive over. 

"15 to 20 minutes, if we can. Now weather's unpredictable, it may be less than that, and that's why you need to practice seeking shelter in your own home," he said.

The Lonoke County School District has three different safe rooms on-campus that Peckat said are all centrally located for quick access.

"We have backup generators incase we lose power. It's climate controlled. It's just a safe place for the community to go to," he said.

While there are several rules like no smoking and no pets, Peckat said you will never get turned away if you show up to the door.

"As many people as we can get in here. If we can save lives. That's what these are designed for," he said.

Several other county Emergency Management Directors said most of the tornado shelters automatically unlock once the tornado sirens go off, but every city and every county is different.

Several people posted on a community Facebook page in Mayflower that they went to the safe room and it was lock on Monday night. 

The elementary school addressed the issue on Tuesday and said protocols have been reviewed to make sure both district safe rooms are accessible for the community.

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