Keep Your Head in a Tornado

Over more than three days in late April, the South, the Midwest and the Northeast saw the largest outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded in the U.S. – 359 tornadoes cut a swath of destruction, killing 362 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. Dubbed the “Super Outbreak of 2011,” the string of violent storms was its most destructive in Alabama. Despite its location south of Tornado Alley (the Great Plains states between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians), Alabama is a frequent host to tornadoes and experienced the largest loss of life last April. During the Super Outbreak, 247 Alabamians died, with 21 deaths in the state’s most populous county, Jefferson County.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) have pinpointed head and neck injuries as the leading mechanism of tornado-involved deaths and they have identified a simple, low-cost solution: helmets. Dr. Russ Fine, founding director of the UAB Injury Control Research Center, says that any helmet designed to protect the head will work — a football helmet, a bicycle helmet, or a construction hard hat — to minimize the damage from high velocity impacts.

“This is as obvious as the nose on one’s face,” Fine said. “It doesn’t require 50 studies and millions of research dollars. This is an effective, practical, sensible intervention that will save lives and reduce injuries.”

Alabama is the nationwide leader in tornado-related deaths. And according to Jefferson County’s Chief Coroner-Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Brissie, at least 11 of the 21 of the fatalities occurring in Jefferson County during the Super Outbreak resulted from head or neck injuries. The UAB research team is recommending the use of any helmet, or head covering made of a hard material and design to protect the head from injury, stored in an easily and readily accessible location in the home, workplace, or vehicle, to be worn in the event of or threat of a tornado. The ideal helmet would be one that covers the greatest portion of the head and face, provides neck support, and stays attached to the head and in the proper position during the high-speed winds. A full-sized motorcycle racing helmet would be best, but the researchers say any helmet structurally designed to protect the head is far better than nothing.

For years, public health official have staked their strategy on early warning systems. The Centers for Disease Control has advised individuals in the midst of a tornado to protect their heads by covering them with their arms and hands.  But Fine says that in the midst of a tornado, individuals will need their hands to hold on to something or to keep children close by. In addition, hands and arms cannot provide adequate head protection.

Fine said that UAB and the Alabama Head Injury Foundation have joined forces to spread the word. They plan to launch a public outreach campaign in March which is coincidentally, Head Injury Awareness Month and the start of the first of Alabama’s two tornado seasons.

“I’m hoping this catches fire nationally,” Fine says. “Nothing would please me more.”