Delayed Opening At Fort Smith Tornado Shelters

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FORT SMITH (KFSM) -- Fort Smith mother Crystal Petty said she rushed her family to the Albert Pike Elementary school tornado shelter during Friday's (April 28) severe weather.

"When the sirens went off, I knew we just had to head to the shelter," she said.

Petty said there were around 200 people waiting outside when she arrived. She said the doors were still locked and quarter size hail was raining from the sky.

"We all just tried to stay calm for the kids.There was a lot of kids crying and some adults very worried and that's understandable," she said.

Albert Pike Elementary wasn't the only school shelter that didn't automatically unlock when the sirens sounded. School leaders said Chaffin Junior High and Booneville Elementary also remained locked for a short time after the sirens sounded.

"We have monthly tests with those shelters and they have all been passing the tests so we assumed everything was working. We have in place a redundant system so if they don't automatically, we have back up measures to get them open," said Darian Layes with the Fort Smith Public School system.

According to school leaders, the locks to the tornado shelters are connected to a radio frequency that will automatically unlock the doors when the sirens sound. They said these three schools mechanisms malfunctioned and they are trying to determine why.

In the case of Albert Pike Elementary, the back up plan of contacting a storm shelter key holder did not work because that person was not available. Layes said a Fort Smith police officer opened the doors with a key.

Layes said anywhere from four minutes to 15 minutes after the sirens sounded all doors were unlocked.

Van Buren School District also ran across a similar problem with two of their shelters. School leaders said the doors at King Elementary School and Butterfield Junior High did not get opened as the sirens sounded. School leaders said it was an issue with contacting key holders and the issue is being reviewed.

Poteau School District also had one shelter that was not unlocked immediately.

"We are aware of the issue. Normal procedures weren't followed that night. We are continuing with local law enforcement on what may have happened to continue to provide safe places for our residents," said Poteau School District Superintendent Don Sjoberg. ​