School fire drill methods are outdated
The author is a public school teacher as well as a volunteer fire fighter. This provocative article doesn’t attempt to answer all the questions raised, but it should induce some sharp thinking in this area on the part of Fire officials.
SCHOOL FIRE SAFETY has been the subject of much discussion and some action in all areas of the United States in past months. Apropos of this increased interest, it is pertinent to ask if traditional school fire drill methods are adequate. Can the fire chief, called upon to advise school superintendents, recommend without qualification the time-worn fire drill methods?
At a typical drill the fire bell rings and the teacher hastens her children down prearranged routes and out through an assigned exit. In the days when the interior of a school contained large areas of varnished wood and oilpainted surfaces, the logical thing to do was to evacuate a building before the flames raced along the wood and over the paint. Today, new school construction methods, extensive use of fire-resisting materials, and stringent municipal and state fire provisions, make the old fire emergency procedures outdated and even unsafe. The greatest danger that children face today is smoke poisoning or explosion rather than open conflagration.
If we train teachers and children to march briskly and automatically— heads held high—along one route, we may be inviting disaster. If the source of the danger is explosion, we might be leading children over or under a weakened spot, or we might be heading the children directly into the explosion area. On the other hand, if the danger stems from smoke infiltration or the presence of other toxic vapors, one might question the wisdom of walking children out of a building in an upright position. Since smoke is lighter than air, it tends to rise. Consequently, if there is a large concentration of smoke present, it may be wiser to have children crawl out of a building, keeping low, where the density of the smoke tends to be lighter.
Common school bell alarm systems are inadequate. The bell system does not indicate where the fire is; how serious it is: the type of fire; or if it is a fire at all. Short circuits and other mechanical failures undermine the reliability of this system. Consequently, we must devise a method for indicating whether the emergency is due to fire, smoke, explosion, or other causes. The system should identify the area of the greatest peril, and it should be diversified so that if one system became inoperative another system could be pressed into service.
The question of emergency orientation becomes obvious. Are we preparing children so that they can shift their thinking to an emergency level? Is the teacher gaining the necessary skill for effective operation in such a situation? School systems must provide the opportunity for children and teachers to practice evacuating buildings under various emergency conditions. Such practice would minimize the danger of panic, and would condition children and teachers to shift quickly onto an emergency thinking level.
How can these experiences be provided? The Army and Navy formulate tactical problems for the purpose of providing similar experiences. Schools can also create tactical situations.
The administrator could invent a hazardous situation. He might pretend that an explosion had occurred in the boiler room which had weakened the upper end of the east wing. In addition, smoke had entered the ventilating system and was filling the east wing. Imagination could provide the details.
At a teacher’s meeting, the administrator could discuss his plans with his staff, giving all the details without revealing the exact nature of the tactical problem. Possibly, the administrator might present a different tactical situation which could be talked out. Suggestions could be made; and a committee could be formed to devise a new alarm system. In addition, plans may be made for the preparation and motivation of the children.
The administrator forewarns teachers and children that there will be an emergency drill on a particular day. Teachers are given sealed envelopes containing a brief description of the situation, and are cautioned not to open the envelopes until the alarm has been sounded.
The administrator, custodians, special teachers, and other personnel are utilized as an inspection team, and are stationed at strategic positions. When the alarm sounds, the teachers and children must interpret from the signal what the emergency is, and they must decide on a course of action. The inspection team notes mistakes and writes up a report in which the details of the errors are stated. At a later meeting, the problem is discussed, and recommendations made. When the problem has been thoroughly analyzed, new suggestions should be added to the old ones, and a new fire drill date set.
When the administrator considers this plan, he is immediately faced with three basic problems: His moral responsibility for the safety of the people in his charge; the legal technicalities; and the public relations factors. The first problem is rather obvious, for the administrator is primarily responsible for the safety of the people in his building. The legal problems are somewhat more difficult. What are the legal implications, for example, if a child should be injured in the confusion resulting from the initiation of a new fire drill process?
From a community relations standpoint, the administrator must be able to get the community to understand and accept the new emergency procedure, and he must be prepared for the indignant calls from parents whose children come home with sore knees and soiled clothing.
These are real problems, but they can be overcome. They must be overcome, for none of the last-mentioned obstacles is grave enough to warrant the adherence to an outdated fire drill method.