Storm Safety

05.22.13

Oklahoma Tornado Football Team Survivors Wore Helmets. So Should You.

Head injuries are responsible for the majority of tornado deaths. So why don’t more people have helmets handy? Caitlin Dickson reports on the campaign to make them a key component of every storm-readiness kit.

After one of the most severe tornadoes ever to hit the United States ravaged Moore, Oklahoma, on Monday, about 15 student football players were found alive, wearing football helmets in the interior locker room of a field house at Southmoore High School. Their regular practice having been canceled in anticipation of a severe storm, the students were watching a video of a previous practice as the tornado approached. Their coach’s instruction to cover their heads with helmets was a spur-of-the-moment suggestion to take advantage of the football equipment handy, but researchers, brain-injury experts, and meteorologists agree that helmets should be a key component in every family’s storm-safety kit.

Following April 2011’s historic spate of tornadoes that killed 338 people in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and, in particular, Alabama, a team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Injury Control Research Center set out to find a way to prevent such a death toll from future storms. They came up with what they call a “practical, inexpensive solution”: helmets. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 percent of the deaths during that four-day outbreak were caused by head injuries. What’s more, a review of research over the past 50 years found that head injuries are responsible for the majority of deaths from tornadoes. Therefore, the UAB researchers determined, the most basic piece of equipment used to prevent head injuries, from the baseball field to the back of a motorcycle, also should be used during a tornado. They began petitioning the CDC to update its tornado-preparation page to include helmets as a key component to every home tornado-preparedness plan.

Over the past couple of years, a number of stories have backed up the Alabama researchers’ argument. Eight-year-old Noah Stewart was swept up in one of the April 2011 tornadoes and came crashing down to the ground. His bicycle helmet saved his life. The Davis family of Pike County, Georgia, doesn’t have a basement, but they weathered a March 2013 tornado wearing motorcycle helmets. And 9-year-old Joplin survivor Augie Gonzalez credits his bicycle helmet with saving him from a toilet that flew out of the ground and hit him on the head during the tornado that devastated that Missouri city in 2011.

About five months after the UAB’s report was released, the CDC posted a statement on its tornado- preparation and response page noting that, if you choose to use a helmet to protect your head during a tornado, you should have it ready so that you don’t waste precious time searching for one, as a helmet is not an alternative to proper shelter. The statement also clarifies that there is no research on the effectiveness of helmets in preventing injuries during tornadoes. The day after yet another devastating tornado ravaged Oklahoma, the CDC’s statement stands, and its instruction to protect your head with anything—“even your hands”—makes no mention of helmets.

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KFOR meteorologist Emily Sutton, who chased the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, said it was unlike anything she'd ever seen.

Dr. Russ Fine, director of the UAB’s Injury Control Research Center, says he is “horrified” that the CDC has not embraced helmets as a necessity for tornado preparation.

“If you look elsewhere on the CDC website, they recommend helmets for everything under the sun, virtually every kind of physical activity where there is even the remotest possibility that there might be a head injury,” Fine told The Daily Beast. “In my opinion they’re embarrassed that they didn’t come up with this very obvious, inexpensive, readily accessible way to protect oneself first.”

While Fine said he agrees with the CDC’s assertion that finding a safe place is a priority in the moments following a tornado warning, the notion that recommending the use of a helmet will result in people running around looking for helmets when they should be running for cover “is beyond logical understanding,” he said. “A helmet should be one of the things, like water, that you have ready. All of those other things are meaningless if you have a head injury.”

“A helmet should be one of the things, like water, that you have ready. All of those other things are meaningless if you have a head injury.”

The CDC did not return requests for comment about helmets.

Fine said an American Motorcycle Association–sanctioned helmet, the kind with a face shield and back-of-the-neck protection, is best for preventing head injury, “but certainly, the least expensive of the bunch, the bicycle helmet, will save your life. There’s no question about it.” Fine and his wife are working on creating a tornado helmet safety foundation to provide helmets to people who can’t afford them.

Meteorologist James Spann of ABC’s Birmingham, Alabama, affiliate says he believes it is up to him and fellow meteorologists to spread the word about the benefits of helmets to help viewers prepare better for coming storms.

“We always believed helmets could have saved countless lives in 2011, but the UAB research backs it up,” he said. “We as meteorologists have not been effective at communicating the need of a readiness kit that includes a helmet for each child and adult in every home. Our warning system is amazing, but we’ve got to go beyond providing warnings 30 minutes in advance. We’ve got to ready people. I try to preach that everywhere I go, and it’s been very well accepted.”

Liz Giordano, CEO of the Head Injury Association, would wear a helmet during a tornado and suggests that everyone—child or adult—do the same, she said. “Unfortunately, when you purchase emergency-preparedness kits, they don’t include a helmet,” she said. “Your brain is one of the most important components in your body, and anything you can do to protect your brain in a disaster is the right thing to do.”