Some tragedies are so horrific they cause sweeping regulation changes to ensure they never happen again. School fires are one example. On December 1, 1958, the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago caught fire and led to the deaths of ninety-two students and three nuns. Dozens more were injured while escaping the burning building. The fire received international attention and prompted a series of major changes and enhancements to the fire safety codes and regulations governing U.S. schools and other public buildings – many of which are still in place today, 60 years later.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire drills should be practiced at least once per month while school is in session. Most state buildings, including schools k-12, are required to have manual fire alarm systems. Most schools also have automatic sprinkler systems and smoke detectors to further ensure child safety and ensure everyone at a school is alerted in a potential fire emergency to get out of the building.
But when the goal of an active shooter is mass casualties, fire alarms are often used. In fact, in almost all school shooting evets in the U.S. the fire alarm was pulled to get students and teachers out of the classroom – the most recent being the Parkland, FL. Investigations into this school shooting event found that the fire alarm was intentionally pulled to cause widespread panic and chaos.
In active shooter situations, fire alarms pose more of a threat to students, teachers and faculty than safety. Fire alarms are loud and messages over school intercoms cannot be heard so even if administrators announced the type of the emergency it likely wouldn’t be heard. Students and teachers who have predicted these drills their whole lives so what they think they are supposed to do – get out. However, when they walk out of the safety of a locked down classroom and no fire exists they become a target for a school shooter.
If a single fire in 1958 could cause widespread changes in regulations to keep students safe, why hasn’t the any school shooting tragedy done the same? Part of the problem is regulation and protocols. Emergency responders say there is no single accepted set of best practices for responding to active shooter situations, and the protocols vary from district to district around the country. Some schools, mainly private and charter schools, are not even required to have active shooter protocols, let alone drills to have teachers and students practice.
Without training, education and awareness students, teachers and faculty will continue to be in harms way as long as fire alarms are pulled in an active shooter situation. What can you do right now as a parent, community leader or teacher to help change this?