By Darrell Todd Maurina
As the fire alarms blared at La Casita Elementary, the teachers followed the practices they’d been taught in numerous fire drills over the previous months and years.
In classroom after classroom, teachers directed their students to remain calm and exit the room in an orderly manner. The teachers did a head count of the students as they left the room, picked up their grade books, and checked the room to make sure no child was left behind. Finally, they closed and locked the doors behind them and followed their students out into the hallways.
And then the plan for fire drills suddenly looked like it was for real as the hallways filled with smoke.
“That plan works fine until you have third graders making a decision at the front of the line whether to lead all their little buddies into a smoke-filled hallway,” said Lonnie Leslie, assistant superintendent for operations in the Clovis Municipal School District.
Leslie said that situation — an actual event that took place during a November fire drill — was just one success story of an ongoing joint program of the Clovis Fire Department and Clovis schools to conduct realistic fire drills. Together with Capt. Karen Burns of the Fire Department, Leslie said he works to surprise teachers and students with scenarios they could actually face if a fire really broke out in their buildings.
“It’s been just great for the school system and us to take care of the problems now before a tragedy happens,” Burns said. “We put the fake smoke into the hall just to see how the children will react. We’re not there to injure the children or scare the children; we are there to make the situation as realistic as possible so we can find weaknesses and fix them now.”
Leslie said the schools learned that a procedure in which young children make decisions at the front of a line isn’t the safest way to prepare for a fire exit, but he was pleasantly surprised by how the youngest children responded.
“We had the third-graders enter smoke, but we had the kindergartners — it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen — they immediately went down on their hands and knees and crawled through the good air like little ants toward the exit,” Leslie said.
That’s exactly what Burns said she wanted.
“When we see the behavior of going to the ground and crawling, it shows that our teaching is working,” Burns said.
She said it isn’t just the children who make mistakes. During a fire drill at one Clovis elementary school on Tuesday, firefighters took several children out of the evacuation line so school administrators would have to decide how to respond to the news that children were missing.
“The principal came into the building looking for the kids; we saw it and we took her as a person who had re-entered the building and was injured, and then they had to conduct the whole rest of the drill without her,” Burns said. “People need to learn that if you re-enter a burning building, there is a good chance you won’t come back out.”
Burns said that kind of mistake, while serious, is something best caught in a drill rather than a real fire. The use of theatrical smoke began about four years ago, and she said the Fire Department plans to continue its efforts to help educate students and teachers on how to keep themselves safe.