Arlington unveils $1.664 million safe room

Arlington safe room, 2014

From left, Arlington town planner Heather Sparkes, fire chief David Franks and assistant chief Jim McMillen are proud of Arlington's new community safe room. Sparkes administered the project, and Franks will oversee the facility's use as an emergency tornado shelter.
Photos by Carolyn Bahm

Interior of Arlington community safe room, 2014

Arlington's new community safe room has plenty of space for nearby residents to shelter when tornadoes get too close for comfort.

On a day that saw tornadoes rip across the Mid-South and reports flooded the news about damages, injuries and deaths, Arlington’s new community safe room debuted. The ominous weather illustrated why it was needed even before the ribbon cutting Monday afternoon.

Arlington’s tornado warning sirens blared Monday morning around 6:40 a.m. just as buses and parents’ cars were dropping off children at the adjacent Arlington Elementary School. Parents and teachers herded more than 150 children into the safe room until they got the all-clear.

It wasn’t even the facility’s first use; fire chief David Franks was the first to shelter there last month when another tornado warning went off.

The 8,100-square-foot safe room at 11842 Otto Lane is the first of its kind in Shelby County. About a dozen more are in the works throughout the Mid-South, said mayor Mike Wissman.

Although the building is conveniently close to the school, it was designed for the entire community’s use. It can hold up to 1,300 people (the estimated population within a half-mile radius, day or night). Franks said people are encouraged to come to the shelter whenever they hear the sirens, if they can travel safely.

Arlington Elementary students walked through on April 23 to learn which entry doors each classroom should use. A drill on April 24 let them practice those skills: More than 950 students and 100 staff members converged in the secure building. They took eight and one-half minutes to gather on this first try, and Franks expects their arrival time to improve with practice.

The facility cost approximately $1.664 million to build, and federal and state dollars took the brunt of the costs, thanks to grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA):

  • FEMA: $1.248 million (75%)
  • TEMA: $208,000 (12.5%)
  • Arlington: $208,000 (12.5%)

The city also opted to add a brick facing for cosmetic purposes and to finish the building’s interior at their own expense.

Wissman said, “Arlington got a beautiful, safe community room for fractions of a dollar.”

Heather Sparkes, town planner, facilitated Arlington’s work with TEMA to obtain the grant, and then she administered the project on behalf of the town.

Talks with TEMA and work on the grant began in 2011, and the grand was awarded in the summer of 2012. The building’s six months of construction began in 2013.

The town’s policy permits other uses for the building as a public facility, but first priority goes to serving as a safe room and temporary shelter.

Wissman said, “We may just get the blessing or the benefit of some extra uses out of it, but that is the primary focus of it.”

Stronger than an F5

Arlington built its community safe room to meet the FEMA P-361 standards for the design and construction of safe rooms.

That means the Arlington community safe room should withstand winds of 250 mph (stronger than an F5 tornado), said Howard Glattstein, and it should withstand the force of a 15-pound two-by-four traveling at 100 mph.

Glattstein is the principal in charge of the architecture department at Fisher & Arnold of Memphis, the project’s engineering and architecture firm. (Barnes and Brower of Memphis served as the contractors.)

The community safe room’s walls are concrete blocks, filled with concrete and reinforced with rebar from the roof down to where they are tied into the footing. Interior columns of steel add to the strength and go all the way through the floor to a concrete pad. The interior footings (which support the columns) are three to four times larger than normal buildings – 13 feet square and about 14 inches thick. The roof is eight-inch-thick concrete.

“Tornadoes suck buildings up,” Glattstein said. “The way you resist that is to keep them from lifting the building. When you make that building heavy enough, even an F5 can’t lift that up.”

Entrances and exits are also protected with FEMA-approved doors that have triple locks and an extra layer of steel facing. They cost about 10 times what a normal door for a commercial building costs, Glattstein said. “They won't be pulled out of that wall very easily. In fact, they won't be pulled out at all.”

Glattstein said the building is an investment by the town of Arlington in its people. “Any structure that is built to protect the citizens of any community is an asset to that community.”

Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to