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Preparing for severe weather: Can a helmet help save your life during a tornado?

The tragic EF3 tornado in Fultondale, Alabama back on Monday night has once again reminded us that severe weather is a reality for those of us in the southeastern United States, even this time of year. As we have learned so many times over the years, deadly tornadoes are a way of life here in the Tennessee Valley. For years and years and years, meteorologists have stressed the importance of having a safety plan in place for severe weather, knowing that plan by heart, and having already in place well ahead of a severe weather threat so that we can execute it as simple second nature if we are placed in a tornado warning.

After the devastating April 27, 2011 "Super Outbreak", there was a big effort to have a better understanding of how and why so many people died on that horrible day so that we could maybe help prevent that from happening again. Over the years after deadly tornado outbreaks, treating emergency room physicians have told meteorologists and social scientists that a large number of people that die in these events would have had a much better chance of survival if they had protected their heads with something sturdy. It has been a long-established and documented fact that injuries related to blunt force trauma to the head and neck area are a very common direct cause of death in tornadoes. Common sense alone would suggest that a person protecting their head with something hard and sturdy would be increasing their odds of survival because of protecting themselves from one of the most common fatal injuries during tornadoes.

In the research after April 27, 2011, we found a few different anecdotal examples to support the idea that having a helmet on can help your chances of survival during a tornado.

  1. At least eleven of the twenty-one people that were killed in Jefferson County, AL in the outbreak died as a result of a head injury.

  2. There was a University of Alabama at Birmingham 50-year review of historical literature which found numerous examples of anecdotal evidence that wearing a helmet saved lives during tornadoes.

  3. In Pleasant Grove, AL a boy was blown from his home, being lofted nearly as high as the telephone poles according to an eyewitness account from his mother, and although he hit his head upon landing from that height, he was spared from serious injury while wearing a softball helmet with a faceguard. Although the helmet was cracked, he was not seriously injured. Here is a short video of that family's story:

There have also been anecdotal cases where the lives of small children and infants may have been saved in tornado impacts over the years because their parents strapped them in car seats.

Using the post-April 27, 2011 research from the UAB Injury Control Research Center, made a list of the top three helmets that can be used to offer you protection during a tornado, based on their ability to offer reinforced protection to the head, face, and neck areas. That list can be found here:

However, ANY reinforced helmet that is rated for safety reasons and not for costuming can offer at least some level of protection, and that includes a simple bicycle helmet that many people may already have in their homes, especially if they have active kids. Some of these can be expensive, but Academy Sports and Outdoors offers an adult-sized helmet that would offer some protection for as little as $15, and there are adult and child-sized options out there at other locations. We don't share that link because we are in any way affiliated with Academy, the manufacturer, or any other company. That is just a not-so-expensive option to the problem at hand.

While the CDC does not have official guidelines concerning the use of helmets for protection during tornadoes, it acknowledges that helmets are often used now and that they have ALWAYS recommended people protect their heads while in their tornado shelter location. However, in this guidance, the CDC makes a CRITICAL point... If you are going to use a helmet as protection, you MUST have it ready ahead of time and either in your shelter location or in a location where you can IMMEDIATELY grab it while heading to shelter. If you have to hunt for your helmet, you are wasting time that you need to use for getting to safety, and you are putting your life at risk. YOU MUST PLAN AHEAD AND HAVE ALL THIS READY BEFORE SEVERE WEATHER THREATENS! It is our recommendation that in every home, there is some type of sturdy head protection for EVERY person that lives there, regardless of their age. However, you must have this ready to immediately go with you to your shelter location BEFORE the tornado warning is issued. Many of our most violent tornadoes here move at over 50 mph. That does not give you ANY time to be searching for your safety and preparedness items when a storm is bearing down on you!

I have been studying severe weather in north-central Alabama and the Tennessee Valley area of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi for almost 27 years now, and I have been forecasting it professionally for 19 years. I have worked both behind the scenes and live on air during multiple deadly tornado events in this area of the country over the last decade alone, including April 27, 2011, and December 16, 2019. Two hundred fifty-two people died on my watch in one day. Drew Richards and I combined our previous Shoals Weather operation in with Ben Luna's weather initiatives at WLX Radio to form Tennessee Valley Weather so that we can do everything we possibly can to help mitigate loss of life during those situations. It is the backbone of what we do at the Tennessee Valley Weather Channel, and it is the backbone of who I am as a person.

After seeing, studying, and working so many of these deadly days over the years, I will be frank. I am stinking tired of funerals on my watch. I know that not all tornado deaths can be prevented. The unfortunate death of 14-year-old Elliott Hernandez in Fultondale is one such example. His family heard the warning, they headed to their basement immediately, and the tornado knocked down a tree that caused the house to collapse in on the family in the basement. Sometimes people do everything they possibly can, and it still isn't enough. However, many deaths in tornadoes can be prevented if people had information that would allow them to be a bit better informed and prepared on how to protect themselves.

I don't advise you and your family to have a helmet for each of you and have it located in your shelter location because it's a gimmick or so you will send cool "tornado shelter selfies" that we can show on the air. And I get it. A helmet looks goofy on a lot of us. James Spann in Birmingham said it best during his coverage of the Easter 2020 tornadoes last year. Putting a helmet on me isn't going to do anything for my looks. It's like putting lipstick on a hog! However, reinforcing your head and neck with something hard and sturdy may save you from having a broken neck or a fractured skull if your home is struck by a tornado. It may look goofy to you, and I get it, but if ONE life is saved because I told you to have helmets for your family, it is completely worth my time and effort. My whole mission as Chief Meteorologist at the Tennessee Valley Weather Channel, and the driving force for who I am as a person, is to do everything I can to keep you informed and do my very best to do my part in SAVING YOUR LIFE when it is in danger from approaching severe weather.

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