Fire and Life Safety

Teaching students that there are life safety threats during which they may or may not be better off evacuating, is a drastic departure from the days when it was expected that everyone would evacuate every time. Emergency evacuation drills in schools certainly are not a new concept, generations of children have grown up with memories of that monthly fire drill, and the hope that it would take place right during the test they were not prepared for.

While the title has changed from fire drill to emergency evacuation drill, the goal of the drill has not. Drills are held to practice evacuating a building when there is no real threat to life safety so that when there is a threat, building occupants will know exactly what to do and not cause delay and confusion. What has changed, is the need to prepare lockdown plans that, on the surface, appear to directly conflict with evacuation. However, once circumstances are considered, it is clear that in some cases providing life safety is best accomplished by remaining inside the classroom.

Lockdown Planning
Lockdown plans are being incorporated into emergency planning by school districts across the country. This is in response to incidents such as the Columbine shootings, and other similar events where students have been injured or killed because of violent acts in or near the school. There are specific requirements that must be written into a lockdown plan and approved by the local fire code official. Ask most schools, and they will tell you they have a lockdown plan. Ask the school administrator if the plan has been approved by the local fire official, and not as many can answer yes. If you ask if the school evacuation plan has been approved by the local fire official once again many administrators don’t know if it has.

Gaining approval is relatively easy if the lockdown and evacuation plans have incorporated all fire-code-required elements. Lockdown plans have four specific areas that must be addressed.

First, the plan must include instructions for initiating the lockdown. The notification method must be separate and distinct from the fire alarm signal. What types of events require school staff to report and activate the lockdown plan? Active shooters, as well as violent individuals in the school or in the neighborhood, always come to mind, but hazardous materials incidents or utility failures, such as power lines down on school grounds, can also warrant activation. Information about threats from outside the school received from local law enforcement or fire agencies can also result in the initiation of the plan. The list of incidents is really site-specific; what is important is to work with school, district and local police and fire agencies to determine what threats will result in plan activation for each specific location.

The lockdown plan must have a plan for accounting for building occupants. The plan must indentify a method for reporting this information to the incident commander. Staff must be able to report the presence or absence of students under their supervision. Most grade school teachers can line up students and have them accounted for in under 10 seconds, once notification is made. This is usually accomplished by lining up alphabetically. This also includes any extra students who are taken in from the hallway or visiting the classroom. This list is reported to the area leader who then reports it to incident command.

The last two items of the lockdown plan are recall and communication. The plan must identify a prearranged signal for returning to normal activity and have a approved means of two way communication between each secured area and a central command location. In many cases, the “all clear” signal utilizes the overhead intercom system, and classroom phones are used for communicating back to the command center.

Lockdown plans also require training and drills that are separate from the requirements of fire and evacuation drills. Fire codes and workplace safety standards mandate that when a lockdown plan is in place, all employees must be trained on their assigned responsibilities and procedures, should the plan be implemented.

Lockdown training should include a discussion with school staff that talks about what they would do when in lockdown and the fire alarm is activated. In most cases, teachers indicated that they would stay in the classroom unless the fire was in their area. All teachers indicated that discussions about built-in fire safety features of the building would also help clarify what decision should be made when you have two conflicting messages being sent — one to stay and one to evacuate. Knowledge of fire separations, how fire sprinkler systems operate and when, as well as how, fire and smoke can spread in the buildings they work in will all help make their decision to stay or flee easier.

Educators indicated the that knowledge about these fire safety systems would be greatly appreciated when they are  faced with this especially hard decision to stay, and it would give them the language to reassure students that it was okay to stay, given the lockdown event.

Lockdown plans, like fire safety plans, must be reviewed and updated annually or when necessitated by changes in the physical arrangement of the building. The plan must also be made available for new staff entering the facility and should be reviewed when staff move from one portion of a building to another. Ideally, this training takes place during summer preparation prior to students arriving for the start of school.

Some school districts keep this planning function with central administration, while others push it out to each school to develop, review and update their own plan that conforms to district requirements. It is important to realize that in large districts that cross different fire agencies, plans must be reviewed by the fire agency responsible for each particular school.

Evacuation Planning
Emergency evacuation drills like lockdown drills are mandated by local fire codes. These drills must be scheduled on a monthly basis at unexpected times to reflect the different activities and locations of students that take place during the day. While lockdown plans only require participation of staff, emergency evacuation drills must include all staff and students in the school. During the course of the school year, in schools that rotate students to different classrooms, officials should hold drills during all periods. Holding the drill during morning homeroom does little to prepare students to leave from other portions of the building during other parts of the day. Even difficult periods, such as lunch and assembly times, should be included in the rotation of random times for drills. While certainly more difficult, schools that can successfully plan and carry out evacuations during these times will be better prepared for emergency evacuations at any point in the school day.

Record Keeping
Emergency evacuation drills and lockdown drills should always include documentation of the drill. Records should include staff members who participated, special conditions that were simulated — blocked exits, loss of communication systems or upset students parents (actors of course). Date, time and location of the drill, time required to complete the drill and, most important, problems that were encountered that require revisions to the plan or retraining of building occupants.

Records should indicate that notification systems — fire alarms or overhead paging systems — worked properly. They should also document that staff responsible for students perform as expected — do they move students to nearest exits and meet at the correct assembly point? Have staff accounted for all students and reported missing or extra students with them to the command team?

Successful lockdown plans and emergency evacuation plans work because there is a commitment to work as a team. School staff need to work closely with local fire and law enforcement agencies to develop plans that will work for each school. Once written, schools can maintain and revise them as necessary. As changes are made, they can then be resubmitted to the local fire agency for review and acceptance. More important than plan acceptance is the recognition that emergency responders and school staff will be working together and understand each of their roles when incidents require evacuation or lockdown.

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