My principal called me at home today; I'm still on medical leave. There's some report that's due on Monday and someone in the main office thinks that I have the information. But that's not what I was going to write about today.
In our conversation it somehow came up that tomorrow is the last day of the month and they haven't completed the mandatory fire drills for February yet. You see, there's a rule. You must have two fire drills per month. The secretary has to fill out a very detailed report for each one. She has to know how long it took to clear the building, how many people were present, visitors included, and what the temperature outside is. I'm not quite sure why the last bit of info is necessary but the other information is very pertinent.
I know it's not fire prevention month but I just wanted to reiterate how important that fire drills are. You see, I have actually been in a school fire. Back in the 90's, when I was subbing in the school district I had an assignment for a resource room teacher in one of our schools that was K-3. That particular day in the middle of March was pretty cold. In fact, the ground was still covered with snow from a late winter storm.
I had a class of five students in a room that was divided, and there was a teacher on the other side of the divider with students of her own. Now, usually on cold days we are given a heads up when fire drills will happen so the students (and teachers) can put on their coats. When the fire alarm went off, the other teacher and I looked at each other very quizzically. At first we didn't know what was going on because we hadn't gotten that "heads up" about coats (and we were in a classroom directly opposite the school office).
It only took a moment to realize that it wasn't a drill, that there was the possibility that there actually was a fire. So, I counted heads – 5 – and we proceeded out of the room and down the hall to the front door. We could see the principal in the hall with a slight look of panic on his face, but keeping order at the same time.
We were on our way to the front door of the school. The faculty room and library were right next to the front doors, but we all proceeded out to the sidewalk. We had the building cleared and were shivering already when, as we could see through the front door, the principal opening the door to the faculty room and quickly shut it. When he did this, the fire became visible in the window to that room and we could now see smoke coming from the roof.
Obviously we were too close to the source of the fire and we were told to move to the playground area. I can't tell you how many times in that short walk that I counted those five heads. We came to a stop at the playground and were being asked by the teachers who were in that area already if we knew anything. Not wanting to distress the children, we just nodded and quietly let them know.
Even though it was the middle of March we had students who were dressed in short-sleeved shirts who were shivering up a storm by now. But there was nothing to do but wait for the fire company. The fire marshall showed up first and what I most remember about that is the way that he pulled into the school driveway. I just thanked God that we had moved the children because he would definitely have taken a few of them out with the way he was driving.
The fire engines were on the way and now it was snowing. Not a heavy snow, but snow nonetheless. I don't know who made the decision, but lucky for us, our municipal building was on the other side of the playground. The playground that was covered with snow, remember.
We hiked across the snow and all filed into the meeting area inside the building. We could hear the fire engines outside and there were children who were crying because they were scared and in strange surroundings. The teachers counted and recounted heads and calmed the children.
The school secretaries had grabbed the student's emergency information and it wasn't long before parents started showing up either having heard through the grapevine, on the radio, or by phone that they needed to pick up their child at the municipal building. Each child had to be signed for.
They managed to contain the fire quite quickly, but the smoke went through the ventilation system and did the most damage. It was weeks before the building reopened. They had to have split sessions with the next school up, grades 4-6, until the building was ready.
But thanks to those twice-a-month drills, throughout the whole event, the students, grades K-3, really were remarkable. They were prepared as they should be.
The most ridiculous thing of the day was the parents who showed up and wanted to know where their child's backpack and coat were. Imagine having to explain to them that when the fire alarm goes off we don't take the time to gather personal belongings!