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Drills point out safety weaknesses

The monthly fire drill wore a new coat of realism this fall as Tahoe-Douglas firefighters pushed Douglas County school principals into real-life scenarios. Firefighters asked tough questions, hid students to determine how long it would take administrators to notice, and forced principals to consider their job after the immediate evacuation.

The drills, conducted at all three lake schools, came off with some interesting results.

At Whittell High School, a janitor, thinking the alarm a prank, reset it before firefighters even arrived. A student, who was in the bathroom when the alarm rang, wandered the hallways for the remainder of the drill. No one notified the principal that she wasn’t out of the building.



Last month, the educators gathered with firefighters and county administrators to discuss what they learned and where they need to go from here.

“We took all the areas in need and made some specific changes,” said Zephyr Cove Elementary Principal William Robison. “We’re looking into buying handheld radios. For now the teachers use hand signals, thumbs up and down, to let me know if all the children are accounted for,” Robison said. “Each teacher has a laminated fire exit map with a primary and alternate route. On the back is a roll sheet with every child’s name and home phone number. You can never be over prepared. You have to be cognizant of what can happen.”




Assistant Chief Bruce VanCleemput said that during the drills, principals found there was a need for better communication among the staff and contingency plans for transportation of students.

A real fire alarm set off in the chemistry lab allowed Whittell High School to put to some of the theories into practice.

“It was 5 degrees outside and we had kids in all levels of dress and not equipped to deal with the weather,” VanCleemput said. “The principal got together with the incident commander – like we talked about during the drill in October – and the kids were moved into a safe refuge area inside the school while we checked the alarm. Before the drills we were getting the kids out of the building, but not really addressing the other problems.”

VanCleemput said during the practice, principals realized that there would be need for temporary shelter and transportation of students during a real emergency. Principals also considered ways to get information to overwrought and concerned parents who might show up at the scene.

Tom Covault, principal at Kingsbury Middle School, said the drills and follow-up meeting allowed the school administration to take a look at how they care for students during an emergency.

“We had a plan before, but we’re all more conscious of that plan and what it needs to work,” Covault said.

Covault said he now has an easily accessible clipboard in his office with important phone numbers and a cellular phone. The school also worked with casinos to get buses to move students during an emergency. The school buses aren’t available during the day.

“These are all things that kind of came out of these meetings,” Covault said. “We just realized we can always do better.”

VanCleemput said more drills are planned for the spring.

“We’re not expecting them to be perfect, but I do expect it to be different,” VanCleemput said.

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