What Are Storm Shelters and What are The Requirements for a Storm Shelter?

(Released on December 15)
In this podcast, listen as Dan Johnson, the senior consultant for GCI Consultants, and Jim Bell, the director of operations for the National Storm Shelter Association, discuss “What Are Storm Shelters and What are The

About The Everything Building Envelope Podcast: Everything Building Envelope℠ is a dedicated podcast and video forum for understanding the building envelope. Our podcast series discusses current trends and issues that contractors, developers and building owners have to deal with related to pre and post construction. Our series touches on various topics related to water infiltration, litigation and construction methods related to the building envelope.

*** Subscribe to the show and leave us a Review on ITunes!

New call-to-action

Dan: Welcome everyone to our “Everything Building Envelope” podcast. I am Dan Johnson, the senior consultant for GCI Consultants, and I will be your host today. I’m excited to have as a guest, Jim Bell, the director of operations for the National Storm Shelter Association. Today, our topic is What Are Storm Shelters and What are The Requirements for a Storm Shelter? Let’s start off by having you tell our audience a little bit about yourself, and then we’ll jump into our podcast.

Jim: Good morning, Dan, and nice to be here. I started out with wind codes after riding out Hurricane Andrew in South Florida. I was on the fringe of it, the county north of Dade County, and it affected us a lot. And going down and looking at the damage that following weekend, it was…it amazed me, and it lit a fire in me. And I got involved with the codes there and it kind of expanded and went on to the tornado codes, and I joined the National Storm Shelter Association, which at the time was outta Texas Tech with Dr. Kiesling. And I’ve since gotten very involved with the national codes and all about shelters.

Dan: Okay. Jim, I know…you and I go back aways back to my storm shelter testing days. And so I know that you’ve just briefly been with NSSA. So, what is the NSSA and what does it serve the industry?

Jim: Yes. Thanks. The NSSA is an organization started in 2000. It was really started after a series of severe tornadoes in the Lubbock area, near Texas Tech. And there was a professor of wind sciences at Texas Tech, Dr. Ernst Kiesling, who started up this organization to talk about how we can prevent loss of life in tornado events. And he is considered the grandfather of the aboveground tornado shelter, and they did a lot of studies. The NSSA was the group that put together the ICC 500, which is the building code in the International Building Code, which covers the United States for shelters, and then partnered with ICC who then took the code as an ICC standard. And the ICC 500 is NSSA/ICC 500 in the code, which covers how you build a safe room.

Dan: I was just gonna say [inaudible 00:02:49] the NSSA is basically, it’s like a trade association comprised of many different building officials and also shelter manufacturers, correct?

Jim: Correct. We have a membership of industry professionals, architects, engineers. We also have producer members who produce, you know, pre-manufactured shelters for the home, site build shelters, and then the officials who actually build the community-type large shelters in schools and other types of buildings. We also work with building officials and emergency managers. And then the associations like FEMA and NOAA, and NIST are some of the other people that are members of NSSA.

Dan: Okay. Yeah. I know that NSSA and ICC 500 goes from large structures down to residences. But for just kind single-family residents, what type of advice could you give to homeowners about protecting themselves from the severe storms, i.e., hurricanes and tornadoes?

Jim: That’s a great question. The majority of the calls I get from the general public are just that, you know, “How can I protect my family during a severe storm? There’re so many different people out selling all kinds of different structures for homeowners.” First thing a homeowner needs to look at is to make sure that the shelter that they’re using has been tested. You can ask for a test report. There’s a number of test labs. Texas Tech started out doing the testing, but they stopped testing about five years ago, and it’s basically ITF. There’s a new testing lab, that’s an ICC test lab, called NTA. And then there’s…UL has done most of the testing. And they’re a certification agency, so once you test, products get certified that they’ve met the test, and so the manufacturer who did the testing will use that documentation in continually building their shelters to meet the code.

So, you have to look for a label from one of those certification agencies on… It first started out for the doors because the doors are the most severely affected by tornado shelters. They have to open and close like regular doors, but they have to act like a wall during a storm. So, the doors are the most vulnerable and they should definitely per code have a label on them, but now they’re asking for labels for the entire shelter. And a homeowner should ask for that material, or at least ask for a test report that their shelter has been tested to go forward. It’s an ongoing process. Some manufacturers are in the process. Some manufacturers they can at least give you a test report showing that they did test.

Dan: Okay. And you mentioned testing and labeling and that type of thing. I believe ICC 500, the 2020 version, is kind of the test standard that’s required. What are some of the requirements of the ICC 500? And then also, kind of branching off a little bit to the FEMA 320 and FEMA P-361 guidelines that, you know, if you can give us a few of the highlights of those documents.

Jim: Yeah. First off, and that’s a good point, Dan, that ICC 500 is the code. It’s the code of the land. FEMA 320 and 361 were the first that came out there. They’re excellent documents of…especially FEMA 320 for residential shelters, but they still have to meet the ICC 500. FEMA 320 and 361 call themselves near-absolute protection. You know, they talk a lot about operations and citing and a little bit more severe. Just for a quick clarification, FEMA calls their shelters safe rooms, and ICC 500 calls them tornado shelters or shelters. Kind of the testing standards that we look at, they’re tested for structural load while they go into a wind wall that they’re put up against and they’re tested for pressure to meet a 250 mile an hour of wind. And that will vary from the size of the structure that you’re doing, but it should show that you were tested for a static load of 250 miles an hour.

Then the doors separately are tested for inswing and outswing. And a door, we talk about door, but it’s the assembly, and that’s for windows, doors, overhead doors, they’re tested as an assembly, not components. So, when you use a door, a window, it’s gotta be used as it was tested, or it’s not the same thing. And then you do an impact test, and the impact test is for a 250-mile-an-hour area, which is the most severe tornado area, which encompasses about 15 states in the middle of the country. And they test to a 15 pound, 2 by 4 at 100 miles per hour. And then they test to make sure there’s no perforation of the wall or the door that you’re using. And then they also…for deflection because if that impact hits and deflects more than three inches, they’ll fail a test.

Then there need to be engineered drawings of how the materials that they use to build the shelter is put together. They also do calculations for anchors of how it anchors into the ground. Specific anchors are usually required, so a homeowner needs to make sure that they’re using the appropriate anchor. You know, the slab that it goes into, it needs to be on a slab, it can’t be, you know, installed in your house if your house is not sitting on a slab. It has to sit…you know, it has to be mounted to the slab. So, it makes for different areas that you have to check and you have to make sure the slab is thick enough in order to hold that, to keep that shelter from being hit and/or being toppled over by the wind, being picked up with the house when, you know, the house is destroyed. So, anchoring is a very important aspect of… And those anchors are calculated for sheer and uplift and… Dan, did I miss anything about testing a residential…? There’s a bunch more that goes into a community shelter as far as engineering is concerned. I’m just trying to cover the residential shelter right now.

Dan: Yeah, no, you hit the residential shelter very well. Like you had mentioned there is a testing criteria, and basically, that’s just to make sure, like as you said, if you’re inside the shelter, if a piece of debris is thrown by the tornado that hits the shelter, it can deflect it. You wanna make sure that the people inside of the shelter don’t get injured. You know, I think that’s amazing [inaudible 00:10:07] deflection. One thing that, you know, that I always thought was kind of bizarre was, you know, after the testing was done, the shelter was…just looked in this horrible shape, which makes sense. And there is no way that the door can open up in order for us to get out again, until, you know, some fire department or somebody comes in and opens up the door for them. But they’re safe, which is exactly what the shelter meant to satisfy.

Jim: Two of my most important aspects is that number one, when you’re inside of a shelter, don’t lean against the wall because, you know, you’ve seen the Newton’s cradle where the energy transfers through the balls, you lift up one ball on one end and you let it go and it transfers to the other end. It’s a transfer of energy through solid objects, and that’ll happen in the tornado shelter. So, I’m glad you brought that up. It’s very important.

And then the other thing is the fact that we do a certificate for a homeowner that will include the GPS address of your home. And then we ask those homeowners to get with their first responders to give them that GPS address so they can come and find you just in case you do get locked into the shelter after the storm, that they’ll be there first to make sure that they will be able to help you out. You should have some tools inside the shelter that kind of would help that. But yeah, definitely. And those are two important aspects.

Dan: Yeah. And like you said you got some… You know, the main thing for a storm shelter is to keep the inhabitants inside of it safe during the storm. You know, getting [inaudible 00:11:44], that’s all secondary, but everybody will be safe. I agree.

Jim: Absolutely.

Dan: Just kind of a, just a general, if a family is looking for a shelter, you know, what things should they look for to see what’s right for them?

Jim: You need at least, I think, three square feet per person inside your shelter, so you should know how many people are going to be using your shelter so you can get the right square footage of a shelter. You know, if you’re going to allow a couple of neighbors to come in with you, I think it’s a great idea for several neighbors to get together and build a shelter, or family members or whatever. But the first thing is the square footage of making sure that you just don’t buy a shelter and then you find out that you can’t put everyone in there. The second thing that I’ve mentioned before is that it’s been tested properly, that it’s properly certified. You’ll have certifications that are listed with whoever tested. You know, if you’ve gone UL, ITS, NTA, they will have records online and you can go see what they tested with and the components within that shelter that they tested with. So it’s always a good reference to pick up. You know, the shelter manufacturer should be able to give that to you though if you ask for it of their testing requirements.

You know, the one question is above ground, below ground, if done properly and tested properly, they’re both safe. Both have their pluses and minuses that you might wanna make that determination of where you wanna have the shelter. You know, below-ground shelters have an issue with water and ventilation, but the ones that are done right, you shouldn’t have that problem with. Also, that they’re installed properly because if the water table comes up, you know, during a storm, you know, we’ve seen below ground shelters pop up outta the ground because the water pressure pushes them up.

They can be handled with installation, we’ll put anchors or webs in them so they won’t do that. That’s something that you can ask. And of course, and this is a general statement, but usually the cheapest product is probably not your best, well-tested product. You can make these things cheap with using inexpensive doors on ’em or inexpensive materials, but when you’re in a shelter, sitting in there with your family and a tornado’s coming, you got that loud noise, you don’t wanna be worried about whether or not that shelter’s gonna be there. You wanna be at least have that feeling that you did the right thing and your family’s safe.

Dan: Yeah, for that reassurance you had mentioned, you know, like the ICC 500 code, you know, kinda has the requirements for, I believe it was like for certification and lifting of the product. And basically, there isn’t any substitutions allowed from the tested product versus what’s installed. Is that correct?

Jim: None. One of the issues we have when our shelters get older, you know, hinges may sag, or the latches may break. You have to replace… It’s very important to replace exactly what it was tested with. I mean, generally on especially community shelters, the hardware on there is just not your regular hardware that you buy, and even on your storm shelter. Our residential storm shelter could have steel bars and deadbolts and things, but still you have to use the same ones that were tested because it’s important that everything interacts properly, that it’s aligned, that, you know, the bolt on the shelter that keeps the doors closed have enough engagement into the strikes or the frame that holds it to the shelter itself is the same… You know, there’s a lot of testing and [inaudible 00:15:37] tests that there’s a lot of failures with tests as you’re testing products to come up with the right combinations that work with different materials.

If you’ve got a very stiff shelter while you pour solid concrete, you know, the anchors that you may use to hold the shelter in, or the hardware that holds the shelter door closed have to engage differently. If the door is very flexible and it bows during a storm, you’re gonna have longer engagements. So, the testing process tests all that out to make sure that you get the right combination that will hold. And like I said, these tests aren’t inexpensive, so they go in… Companies go in thinking they’re gonna pass, and when they don’t, it’s a big deal because they gotta go test again, but they gotta find the right products that will meet the code. That’s why it’s the shelter, the doors, the windows, everything that’s in a shelter has to be tested and has to be used as tested because, you know, if you make a deviation, you change the type of anchors they can make a severe effect on whether or not that shelter will hold up.

You know, one of the observations that I made going down to South Florida after Hurricane Andrew, so I’m walking through neighborhoods where none of the windows were in… You know, most of the building in South Florida was CBS block and that’s what they used to build just a regular home to meet the hurricanes down there. And that you’d walk through and you’d see a concrete opening, and where a window used to be it’s just concrete because the window was just either toenailed in or just using concrete nails or whatever to hold it in, and it just pulled it right out. There was a pressure… And we found a window where the glass wasn’t even broken, the window was sitting inside the house laying on a bed or something that…it just popped out of the opening. So, the anchoring, you know, is very critical, and the correct anchoring that was supposed to go with the project is very important in hurricane-safe rooms and tornado-safe rooms.

Dan: Yeah. That’s very true. Like you had mentioned, you know, depending on the substrate that you’re actual attaching, you know, your door or window into, it makes a huge difference. You can have wood substrates, but they definitely need to be reinforced.

Jim: Right. And that’s the key that even a building inspector can inspect that to make sure it’s correct because a lot of times they won’t see the anchors. So, it’s important. In commercial buildings, they do an anchor inspection before they can cover it up until they can actually see the anchor shoes. So, it’s very important that when a homeowner is working with their shelter manufacturer and you end up having a good relationship with him, he’ll tell you what anchors to use and he’ll show ’em to you. I’ve had a few calls in my tenure at NSSA where they had a failure and they found out that they didn’t use the correct anchors, and the failure wasn’t even during a tornado, it was just regular operations. And so the one they had to come back and replace the shelter because it wasn’t put in correctly. So, it’s important to have confidence with your supplier of the shelter.

Dan: Yeah, exactly. And in order to, you know, gain that confidence is to have, like you had mentioned, you know, the written documentation that the shelters have been tested and certified and listed by a reputable company. You know, that is very true. You had initially kind of talked about naming structures types of things, you know, so what’s kind of the difference between a properly constructed tornado shelter, a safe room or a best available refuge area?

Jim: It’s very important. A tornado shelter has to meet the ICC 500. And basically, in section 423 of the building code, if you’re going to put a shelter in, it has to meet the ICC 500. It’s…like I said, it’s section 423 that tells you that, you know, shelters have to meet the ICC 500. For years, you know, being in the door industry is where I come from that…I’ll hear architects come in and say, “Well, we wanna put in a shelter that will meet, you know, an EF2 tornado, but I don’t need one to meet an EF5 tornado.” Well, there is nothing that’s tested in between. You either test the worst case for the area that you’re building the shelter.

Now, you could have a shelter let’s say in Florida that has a wind load of… You know, in Florida I think it is 100 mile an hour missile speed, but then they have to test with a 9 pound 2 by 4 instead of a 15 pound 2 by 4 for essential facilities. In the regular building code, the impact test for just a regular object to be put in a home in Florida that’s not a shelter, they use a 9 pound 2 by 4 at 34 miles an hour, which hits, you know, with 350-foot pounds of force. Then you get into a tornado impact of 15 pound 2 by 4 at 100 miles an hour and at 5,000-foot pounds of force. So, there’s completely different… Hurricane and tornado, even though they’re tested pretty much the same way, the pressures and the impacts are completely different. So, you never use a hurricane-tested device in a tornado. I think you would probably be safe if you used a tornado device than a hurricane device.

But then we get into the best available refuge area, which is what happened in Illinois this past December when that Amazon building was torn apart and, you know, they had nine deaths in there. Well, they had best available refuge areas, which did meet the code. Amazon did nothing wrong with providing these best available refuge areas, but that’s just a regular building that they go in and that’s the safest place they can be in the building without having a tornado shelter. So, they pick areas without windows and…but they won’t withstand impacts and they won’t withstand falling debris.

And that’s what happened there, was the fact that they had best available refuge areas. The code requires certain types of buildings to have shelters and safe rooms, which are basically right now requirements in the 250-mile-hour wind zone require schools, emergency operations centers, police stations, fire stations, 911 call centers. They’re protecting the first responders and the most vulnerable, you know, the children in schools, but it’s not required for any other type of building. And there’re communities across the country right now looking into, especially after the Amazon building of maybe requiring it for occupied warehouse spaces where they’d have to have a tornado shelter in it.

But a best available refuge area is, and, you know, architects can go in and do a survey and find out which area would be the least hazardous to be, but it’s not saying you won’t get injured or you won’t be killed in that area. It’s just saying that’s the best place to be until you put in a tornado shelter. Be careful… You know, I see all the time I go into buildings and look at a bathroom door with a push-pull and it’s a hollow core wood door and they have a tornado shelter sticker on the door. That’s not a tornado shelter. At best it would be a best available refuge area. So, all over the country, they mislabel openings. And neither…

One of my biggest is that, you know, there’s a lot of home builders who will say they have a shelter…in a new home that they put in, they separated a space, you know, maybe they put, you know, block walls in. They don’t usually put in a tornado door in it. And sometimes if it’s on a house that’s built up on there’s a crawl space underneath the house, you know, whatever tornado shelter you put in it, it’s gonna go when the house goes, because it’s not anchored to a concrete slab. So, a lot of people misuse the term tornado shelter when they’re just putting in a best available refuge area. If I get one thing through in my tenure here is the fact that if it is a tornado shelter, mark it a tornado shelter. If it’s not, mark it a best available refuge area. You’re telling people they’ll be safe in this room when they won’t be. So, that’s my message for the day.

Dan: That is some very good food for thought, because even like myself, when you’re in larger buildings, you see the signs all the time, tornado shelter, storm shelter, whatever. And in your mind, you think, well, of course, that’s where you need to go if a storm happens, but in your mind, you know, you should think, “Well, then I should be safe in there.” But like you said, you’re safe from a storm but not a tornado is what you’re saying.

Jim: Yes, very much so. And I’ll say one thing here, I have much respect for building officials. I’ve trained many, many, many building officials and they have 10, 20 homes to inspect. They’re inspecting roofing and plumbing, electrical, and everything else. They don’t really have time to inspect your tornado shelter. We’re making it easier to inspect with the labels if all they gotta do is go in there and look for the label saying what it was tested for. You know, I see people test for a hurricane wind pressure and then stick it on a tornado shelter and it’s tested to 200 miles an hour instead of at 250 miles an hour.

It makes a difference. And a building official can catch that very quickly by just looking at the label and making sure, you know, they’ll know what territory that they’re in of just doing a quick review of the tornado shelter for the benefit of the homeowner. But very little of that gets done. And I think, as many codes as we have, and we’ve got very intelligent, very dedicated people serving on the ICC 500 committees and the FEMA 361 and 320 committees, but none of that is any good unless it’s policed. And the only people that can make sure that those are correct are building officials and emergency managers’ offices.

And I just implore them to maybe hire some extra staff to take a look at these because there’s a lot of shelters going in. I get a lot of calls from people that after they hear of a severe tornado outbreak, you know, a lot of people are looking to invest in putting a shelter in their home. I just would like to make sure that we’re looking at ’em and make sure that they’re safe.

Dan: Yeah, I agree. That’s kind of one of the areas that I believe…you and I talked about in the past that kind of needs probably the most improvement of just kind of increasing the [inaudible 00:26:48] just to make sure that structures are being built for that geographical area to sustain to the codes. Are there any other areas that you see, in your opinion, that should be improved on for the general public, you know, to keep them safe?

Jim: Well, one of the things we’re struggling with right now is keeping up, you know, a shelter manufacturer, usually they’re smaller family-owned companies that have done a good job over the years of trying to keep up the latest codes. We ran into an issue where the state of Georgia had a rebate program that came out that said that the shelters that are put in to get rebate money have to meet the 2020 code, which requires the labeling, the listings of the products that are in a shelter. And also it has to be…have a follow up where every year they get reviewed by their certifier that they’re still making ’em the same way that they tested ’em.

And in doing a survey, really, nobody met the 2020 code. They didn’t have a lot of ’em that had labels. There are several that are in the process. It’s not an easy process to go through, and they’re doing it, but a lot of people don’t meet the 2020 code because, you know, their shelters aren’t labeled and their doors aren’t labeled. That’s taking time…

Now, I know FEMA got involved and a couple of other organizations and they gave ’em a two-year open window to get that done so that they can still produce tornado shelters for people who needed ’em. But they may not have the labels yet. Well, that happened almost a year ago, so, you know, we’re coming up on another year to make sure that… And that gives not only the homeowners a way to make sure he’s getting a proper shelter, but also the building official to make sure that the proper shelter’s being used if they’ve got the proper labels and the testing requirements. And so when that happens, when everyone gets up to the latest code, I think that’s probably the most important thing that gets done.

You know, a lot of community shelters are being put in, in schools and they have proper inspections, they have proper… You know, the architects gotta have their drawings. All the trades have to meet, you know, the tornado and hurricane code. I think that’s going pretty well right now. I tell people that when they’re looking for a tornado shelter to go to when there’s a storm eminent, there’s not a lot of community-type shelters that everyone can go to. Most of the shelters are protecting the first responders. School shelters are protecting the school children, but not all of them are opening to the general public.

I know Alabama did a great job in the Birmingham area putting up large-domed public shelters that serve certain communities after the tornadoes they went through in 2011 and after. They’ve had a lot of severe tornadoes. So, they put up big community shelters that’ll hold 1,000 people. But the best way to protect yourself from a tornado is have a tornado shelter in your home. You know, that way you’re assured… You’re not in your home 24 hours a day, so I would say I’d make sure that there is somewhere that I can go if I’m not at my home. But at least make sure that your family can be protected in your home by having a residential shelter.

Dan: Yep. That sounds like a great theme to kind of recap our talk today. Be safe, that’s the biggest thing. You know, and Jim it’s been great talking today. I mean, I appreciate you coming on with me. So, if listeners wanna reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to contact you?

Jim: You can go to, and the telephone number’s there. You can reach me. I’ll give you my…it’s actually my home number. It’s (954) 253-0883, and I’d be glad to talk to you. I’m always happy to talk to homeowners who are looking to put in… I may not have, you know, the right answers, like I said, but a lot of companies right now are working towards getting their products. So, they tested in Texas Tech back in, you know, 2010, 2009, and there have been some changes in the codes. They didn’t have labels at the time. They had some different requirements. So, to get something that’s up-to-date, I tell people, just make sure they have something that has been tested and there’s proof that it has been tested. Even if it was an old test, you’re better than having no test at all. But please, you know, call me, that’s what I do.

Dan: All right. Well, thank you, Jim, for coming on. I mean, I’d also like to thank everyone for listening to our podcast today. If you’d like more information about our company, GCI Consultants, you can find it on our website at, or you can give us a call at (877) 740-9990. Thank you once again, and I look forward to talking with everyone next time on “Everything Building Envelope Podcast.” This is Dan Johnson saying, so long.