Firefighters drill Whittell
A steady alarm sounds as smoke billows out from under the eaves and expands over the roof.
Students exit the building into the brisk October morning air. Before fire trucks even arrive on the scene a janitor discovers the pulled alarm, and chalking it up to a student prank, he resets it. Students and teachers are filing back into classrooms as fire trucks pull into the parking lot.
The janitor never noticed the smoke coming from the back section of the school building.
Luckily, this was only a drill, but it served its purpose, pointing out some crucial mistakes that can be made in the face of real emergency.
The Tahoe-Douglas Fire Department enacted real-life situations at the three Douglas County lake schools for just that purpose – finding problem areas.
On Friday morning, George Whittell High School was the scene. The scenario was a fire started in an home economics room. A smoke bomb was released on the outside of the building behind the room. The firefighters prepared two mock victims complete with painted-on burn injuries. No one knew about the drill except for the class with the victims. The principal, Larry Snyder knew there was going to be a drill, but not the specifics.
“We don’t know where it’s going to go,” said Assistant Chief Bruce VanCleemput. “That’s part of the drill. We will be throwing a lot of questions at the principal in this scenario.”
VanCleemput said when the drill was performed at the elementary and middle schools they found that there needed to be better contingency plans for transportation of students and communication.
The first obvious problem area at the high school was the quick acceptance that the alarm was a fake. Capt. Ken Poohachoff emphasized the need for every alarm to be taken seriously.
The firefighters quickly found their victims, but were ordered to hold tight until the administration realized they had students missing.
“If this had been a real fire we would have hot footed it through the building after the fire was knocked down, and hopefully we would have found these people,” Poohachoff said, as he waited for a report of missing students.
Poohachoff also detained a stray student who was found wandering the halls after the building was emptied. The girl stood next to the fire hose laid on the floor as Poohachoff questioned her about what she should be doing in a fire drill. Surrounded by firefighters in full gear the girl had no answers.
A report finally came over that at least one student was missing. It took about three to five minutes more for the second victim to be noticed missing. The girl that was detained was never noted.
As the students filed back to class the principal met with fire personnel and a representative from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department to discuss the drill.
“God forbid, but it could happen,” Snyder said acknowledging the scenario. “I learned a lot, but the biggest thing is you can’t do it all yourself. I’ve been doing fire drills for 35 years and there’s no doubt that this one was more involved than any I’ve been in. Right now, I have a better plan in mind than I did before hand.”
Snyder said he realized in a real emergency he would need to quickly delegate tasks to his faculty to ensure everyone was safe, and get information to parents. Accountability of all of the students was also addressed.
“In a high school you’ll always have a problem that on a given day some students will skip,” Snyder said, but agreed that there needed to be a better system.
VanCleemput said he plans to hold a follow-up session with all the principals and the sheriff’s department to come up with solutions to the problems identified during the drills.
“This really put the administration on the spot, but it wasn’t meant in a negative way,” VanCleemput said. “It was meant as a learning experience in a scenario we could control.”
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