Sounding the Alarm on Fire Drills

Friends has had more fire drills in 2019-20 than in any previous year. Why?

With the 2019-2020 school year well underway, students at Friends have noticed an interesting trend: more fire drills have occurred this fall than in any previous year. The reason for this sudden change has been a topic of much discussion. It has also sparked conversations about the other drills at Friends, and why we seem to be so focused on fires.

Among students, the most common theory about the increased number of fire drills is that we have been failing the drills, and have had to repeat them. But Upper School Principal Steve McManus says that the reason is actually a change in state legislation.

“The Maryland State Department of Education requires, now, a monthly drill for both public and private schools,” he explains.

In the past, schools have only been required to have one drill per quarter. However, the new monthly requirement will result in twice the fire drills this year than have been held in the past.

According to John Rice, the school Security Supervisor, the change was aimed at schools that are “not fully protected by an automatic sprinkler system.” Friends falls under this category.

This explanation alleviates any concerns about our inability to correctly perform a fire drill. Still, many students have expressed worries over the new fire drill system. Manny Sachs-Kohen (‘21) has heard many students and teachers remark that the increased number of fire drills have created a lack of urgency when it comes to fires.

“I had a teacher tell me that they just stayed in their room during a fire drill because they knew it was just a drill,” he says. This is a serious safety concern, because if a real fire occurred, everyone needs to evacuate to ensure their safety.

Either way, it seems like the new fire drill system is here to stay. The student body has little say on statewide laws.

However, the recent change has brought to life another important question. Why have we had so many fire drills, and no drills for other disasters or situations?

Friends has three separate drills for different types of emergencies. These include evacuation during fires, sheltering in place during a weather-related situation, and ALICE in the event that an active shooter or intruder is on campus. So far, we have only practiced the fire drill. Both Mr. McManus and Mr. Rice say there are plans to hold a shelter in place drill later this year.

But there are currently no plans to practice the ALICE procedure. Both faculty and administrators say that’s because of a concern that these types of drills could cause trauma to students.

“Preparing for the possibility of an active shooter or lockdown event is balanced by the need to avoid the infliction of trauma that many experts believe simulated active intruder/shooter drills can cause,” Rice explained by email in response to the Quill’s questions.

McManus says that the question of whether to avoid drills for active intruders is still an ongoing debate.

“The debate centers on, is that too traumatizing for students to actually simulate someone coming on campus seeking to do harm,” he says. He notes that the faculty came to a consensus on the previous decision. On the other hand, McManus also acknowledges that events spark further consideration.

“Every time there is a new tragedy, like the one in Los Angeles, [it raises the question] should we be practicing or should we be simulating a situation like that,” he says.

According to some newer Friends students, other schools in the Baltimore area practice and prepare for active shooter situations. Ellie Proutt (‘21) and Roan Blakeley (‘21), both of whom went to Dumbarton Middle School, say they had lockdown drills to simulate an active intruder situation at least twice a year.

Both Ellie and Roan acknowledge that their middle school drills were boring at times. However, they also say that they felt very prepared.

“In the beginning of the school year we would go over all of the procedures in great detail. Honestly, it was a bit tedious but I knew exactly what to do,” Ellie says.

Whether or not we should hold drills for active intruders is a conversation that is likely to continue into the future. Either way, according to a recent Quill survey, it appears that most of Friends’ students would prefer to spend more time preparing for both the shelter in place and ALICE procedure.

Out of 57 student survey responses, 45 said that they were unhappy with the way the school is currently handling active intruder drills. In addition, 44 out of the 57 respondents said that they would prefer to practice these types of drills.

Some students adamantly advocated for the school to change its position.

“Although this drill can be hard for some students, I still think we should do it, so that if something happens (hopefully it never does), we know what to do. It’s an issue that we dance around because there is a ‘it won’t be us’ thought process around active intruders, but [if] it does happen, we wouldn’t be in total mass panic with no awareness or any idea of what to do,” wrote one student respondent.

But not everyone agrees.

“It is not shown to increase survival and it can potentially traumatize students,” one student wrote of the ALICE drills.

Still, people on both sides say that we should have more conversations about the different procedures. Some students say that they do not even know what ALICE is.

The five fire drills so far this year have brought to life a conversation that is unlikely to go away. Questions about Friends’ security procedures will hopefully be answered throughout the rest of the school year. For now, the student body can rest-assured that in fact we are not failing the fire drills, and are merely complying with state legislation.