Students, staff slack in fire drills; fire department reinforces important drill procedures

On Monday, Jan. 5, while students enjoyed their last day of winter break, teachers were called to a meeting to discuss the school’s fire procedures. About five years ago, the fire district initiated a new drill protocol for schools, hospitals and large office buildings.

“Of all the locations that I’ve worked with, [Westlake] is the only one that still needs work,” said Lt. Jack Frost, who presided over the meeting.

The area most often cited as in need of improvement was meeting the time goals the fire department sets.

“The time goal is to clear the building in three minutes or less,” Frost said. “The second time goal is to have a full, accurate as possible accountability between four and six minutes, because generally that’s when we get on the scene, so we like to know what’s going on if we need to rescue anybody.”

But following the renewed assertion of these goals, there have been complaints that it is impossible to hit those marks when traveling from the third floor English wing in the main high school. The staircase in that area is narrower than many others in the school.

“I’m concerned that [meeting these time goals] is actually impossible, but I think it’s worth a try,” English teacher Melissa Dupre said. “I think it’s 12 classes up here [in the English wing], and some periods we aren’t all full, but mostly we are. So I guess the upshot is that I’m a little skeptical that it’s even a realistic possibility, but I want to know that so that we can take the next step to correct it.”

Frost acknowledged these concerns, but added that they nevertheless do not excuse compromises in safety.

“[The stairwell] has been taken into account, but that’s where we have building restrictions,” Frost said. “We have a couple of staff members who brought that issue up with me, and we are going to try to do what we can by splitting the people who get to the first floor so that they don’t all head left, and hopefully that will get the flow moving faster.”

Frost stressed that noise level is another big problem with the way fire drills have been going.

“I think it would be helpful to explain why being as quiet as possible — within the parameters of noisy feet and the fact that you’re teenagers — is important,” Frost said. “It’s in case something is stated over the [PA system] that you all need to hear straight away, to be able to act and react quickly. This noise right now worries me in that if [something] only gets said once, you would have no idea what was said. If we realize there is a big threat and we have to move you as a group very swiftly, it saves time if we don’t have to quiet you guys down.”

Upon leaving the building, teachers must account for each and every student. New fire drill protocol provides a method that will simply and efficiently decrease confusion.

“Having people stand in a semi-line — it doesn’t have to be rigid, one right behind the other — is going to help a staff member count people,” Frost said. “Literally, they can look down at the roster, see ‘yup I have 10 in the classroom, I’ve got 10 students in front of me and I can hold up my green card.’ That process is so much faster when there’s a delineation between the classroom groups, rather than it being a huge merge of all the classrooms hanging together.”

Fire drills are important practice for instances of real fire, and failure to follow proper drill procedure efficiently has real effects on the safety of everyone in the school. Ultimately, staff and students will have to work together to whip Westlake fire drills into shape.

“From the vibe that was in the [meeting] room, and the great questions that came from that, and then the groups of staff members that came with me out to the stadium, it seemed to go quite well,” Frost said. “The staff, we need them, as adults, to help things run smoothly, because we’re not there. So we need them to step up, and not just go out there, and you know, have a chat like the rest of you guys.”

Westlake has not had a fire drill since the district protocol was reinforced.