Fire & Life Safety
- By Mike Halligan
- July 1st, 2014
PHOTO © MICHELANGELUS
Each year there are an average of over 5,600 structure fires in schools across the country — that’s more than 100 fires a week in our nation’s schools. These fires receive attention on a local scale but rarely attention on a national scale. Ask most teachers and they will say that fire and fire prevention or response is not on their minds most days. They often lament the monthly fire drill as a time waster that teaches students that most alarms are false and there is no fire. Fire drills for many have lost their meaning.
Ask students what they think of a fire drill and most will tell you they learn how to line up in a certain order and walk out of the building. Elementary students like the fact that it’s a mini recess and gets them out of instruction for a few minutes. When asked what they would do if there was a fire in their school most students said, “follow the teacher and walk out.” They get the basic idea. When students were asked if they would crawl out low to the ground if there were smoke in the hallway, they replied, “No that’s not what we were told to do.”
This is very concerning, even with a monthly drill, students really don’t know how to evacuate should there be a fire in their school. Students and staff remote from the fire may be able to walk out. Occupants closer to the fire, and those needing to move through an egress system with smoke in it, need to know the best option may be to crawl out. When asked what they should do if there was smoke, most students recited the popular phrase, “Stop, Drop and Roll.” In reality, they should Stop, Drop and Crawl.
What can schools do to ensure they are ready to respond should a fire start? Perhaps fewer drills — one every other month combined with alternate months of familiarizing staff and teaches with actions they can take to prevent fire, minimize the impact of fire or better respond to student needs when the alarm does sound. Here are a few items that can be reviewed in lieu of a monthly drill during inclimate weather:
- Each grade team can walk their primary and secondary egress routes and inspect stairways, doors, door hardware, exit lighting and signs for proper operation and that the egress path is unblocked. To start, this will require training from a fire-safety professional. Once trained, school staff will understand the concepts each of these items have related to fire safety.
- Ask teachers to create maps with students identifying two ways out. The components of the map are the same as those posted in each room. There may be some very creative maps developed and they could serve as covers for fire-safety binders in each school.
- During staff meetings, identify students from previous drills or who have identified themselves as needing assistance to evacuate. Create plans that discuss how assistance will be provided to these students. Ask for input from parents as well.
- Work with the local fire prevention educator and encourage students to develop emergency evacuation plans for home. Ask them to make short videos or reports detailing how they made their plans and who participated in the home drill. Pictures and plans can be shared with others once permission is obtained.
Fire drills are important, there is a need to practice. Unfortunately, the fire drill may be the one part of the educational process that has not been updated for decades. It’s time the fire drill is reinvented for schools. There are many other substitutes for the monthly drill. The key is to find an activity that promotes correct fire evacuation response in the school but also at home or any other location a student may be. If the student can transfer proper evacuation knowledge from school to home, they will be better prepared to respond to a fire alarm anywhere they find themselves.
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.
Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.