The Connection Between Fire Safety and Safety From Crises and Emergencies In Schools

April 5, 2021 / by The “I Love U Guys” Foundation

1958 was the last time a public K-12 school fire resulted in fatalities. A fire started in a barrel of oily rags in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, IL — as fire and smoke grew through the stairs and wood floors, someone rightly tripped the fire alarm, but it didn’t work. With no knowledge of how to exit the building safely, the three teachers and 92 students trapped on the second floor of the building tragically died.

Since then, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been a guiding force in ensuring limited or no injuries and fatalities from fires in schools by developing minimum fire protection and life safety requirements. 

The key here is reform — while the tragedy at Our Lady of the Angels School inspired widespread fire safety improvements that make schools much safer today, it’s important to note that preventative measures like fire drills and fire sprinkler systems existed since the 19th century. 

Fire drills started more than 90 years before the Chicago fire, but it wasn’t until that incident that schools put monthly fire drills in place. Within one year of the fire, the NFPA worked to eliminate many of the hazardous conditions found in schools around the U.S. Today, the NFPA requires educational occupancies across the country to enforce its fire safety equipment guidelines and standards, maintenance of protection systems, space requirements, evacuation protocols, emergency reporting, and much more. 

Beyond that, schools must also have an emergency action plan (EAP) that protects staff and students from various types of emergencies, just like The “I Love U Guys” Foundation’s  Standard Response Protocol (SRP).

The Impact of Drills In School Safety

In a keynote presentation at our most recent symposium The Winter Briefings, The “I Love U Guys” Foundation’s Mission Director Carly Posey shared a powerful story about her own experience with a school crisis.

On December 14, 2012, an active shooter entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, where two of her kids were students. While Posey’s fourth-grade daughter hid in her art class until being released by law enforcement, the gunman had entered her son Reichen’s first-grade classroom and shot the teacher. 

As he stopped to reload his weapon, students frantically ran and attempted to escape the room in various directions, which, sadly, was fatal for some. But Reichen took that opportunity to dart toward the door along with nine other students. 

Where were they headed? The school’s front entrance to run to the firehouse. 

When asked why he went in that direction, he said he followed the sidewalk toward the firehouse because that’s how they exited the school during fire and evacuation drills.

On that scary and unexpected day, a first-grader saved his life and others by trusting a guided drill he knew and practiced before. This is the impact of the prioritization of drills in school safety. When we practice drills and procedures regularly, muscle memory can develop, and it’ll take over during moments of heightened stress or when fear cripples our ability to think quickly and rationally. 

In fact, “The data is clear: When done in line with best practices, lockdown drills are an empowering tool to keep schools safe,” says Dr. Jaclyn Schildkraut, researcher, author, and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. To learn more about her work, check out this profile of her and some of her research, as well as this piece outlining one of her presentations at our symposium, The Briefings

With response programs like the SRP and Standard Reunification Method (SRM) in place, school administrations and law enforcement can more effectively maneuver and better prepare to prevent senseless loss and injuries during crises. 

As Carly put it: “To learn, kids have to feel safe.” Here’s how we ensure safety and preparedness with clear communication and directives for teachers and students with the SRP during threats or hazards:

Hold: Hold in your room or area. Clear the halls.
Secure: Get inside. Lock outside doors.
⮕ Lockdown: Locks, lights, out of sight.
Evacuate: To a specified location.
Shelter: State the hazard and safety strategy. 

“We need to have a plan to be safe,” Carly reminds us. ”Communicate that plan to everyone and make sure everyone is on the same page.” 

Remember: Preparing is preventing.

School Safety in Crises: Learn From the Past to Change the Future

More than 60 years after the school fire in Chicago, it’s clear that when we put our mind, science, and resources to it, we can keep our schools safer.

If you aren’t familiar with The “I Love U Guys” Foundation school and community safety protocols, you can learn about our framework here — or feel free to contact us to start a dialog about how we can help your school, district, or group.

Hugs. I love u guys. 💕

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Written by The “I Love U Guys” Foundation

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