Carroll County to set guidelines for school evacuations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carroll County school officials will develop countywide emergency evacuation guidelines in response to parents who complained that Westminster High's policy requires disabled children to be taken to a stairwell to wait for firefighters while other students leave the building, schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said yesterday.

"We're going to develop some countywide guidelines, which we do not have at this point, to assist schools," Ecker said at a news conference. "Each school has to develop its own emergency evacuation plan, depending on the facility."

The guidelines, Ecker said, will be developed in consultation with local fire officials and associations that serve severely disabled people.

In addition, Westminster High's principal, John Seaman, has formed a committee to review the school's policy.

The school's committee -- which will include parents, special-education representatives from the county and the school, and a member of the Westminster Fire Department -- will hold its first meeting at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Westminster High, Seaman said.

Results from that committee are expected in a matter of weeks, Ecker said.

The actions came in response to parents who questioned the school's policy after a fire was set in a trash can in a second-floor boys' restroom Dec. 21.

Although the school system will create guidelines to help schools develop their policies, Ecker said the actions taken by the staff at Westminster High last month were appropriate.

"It is fairly normal procedure [to take] individuals that are less mobile than others" to stairwells during an evacuation because stairwells are less likely to catch fire, Ecker said.

Ecker said the policy at Westminster High -- a three-story building with about 1,800 students, three of whom are disabled and unable to walk out of the building on their own -- is similar to policies at other Carroll County schools with multistory buildings.

He also said the Westminster Fire Department, which reviews school evacuation policies annually, is aware of Westminster High's plan.

"We have no problem with their plan," said Kevin Utz, Westminster's fire chief. "It seems very reasonable to us."

Utz said the school's evacuation plan is similar to those at area hospitals and nursing homes, which move patients to unaffected areas.

"I'm not taking up for the school," Utz said. "Me and the fire marshal would have something to say about it" if the evacuation policy were flawed.

According to Westminster High's emergency evacuation policy, disabled children -- who are assigned a teacher or instructional assistant -- must be escorted by the adult to the nearest unaffected, or smoke-free, stairwell, where the child and adult are expected to wait for firefighters. If the situation is not considered safe enough, the policy calls for the adult to carry the child out of the building.

In this case, the children were taken to a stairwell immediately after the fire alarm sounded, Seaman said.

"They were never left alone," he said in an interview this week, responding to accusations that the children were stranded. "That is a gross misstatement."

Seaman, who was on the third floor, said it took him no more than a minute or so to get to the restroom where the fire had been set. By then, he said, an assistant principal had put out the fire with an extinguisher.

"There was residual smoke [in the area], but to use the term 'smoke-filled' is a gross exaggeration, if not just a total misstatement," he said.

Seaman said he had determined that it was unnecessary to evacuate the building but allowed the evacuation to continue because he felt "trying to reverse it would create a worse situation."

He said that as part of that evacuation, staff members who smelled smoke decided to carry two disabled students out of the second-floor stairwell before firefighters arrived.

"One was outside, the other in the lobby" when he announced over the public-address system that students and staff could return to the building, he said. The third disabled student was in the principal's office, Seaman said yesterday.

Parents at yesterday's news conference said they were not satisfied with the explanations they heard from school officials.

Linda Ensor of Finksburg -- whose son Andrew, 14, is an eighth-grader at Shiloh Middle in Hampstead -- worries about sending him to Westminster next year because of the policy.

She said that if the policy is not revised, she may consider sending him to a school where his classes can be on the first floor.

She and another parent, Tom Freeze of Kingsville, expressed doubt that the one adult assigned to each student could easily carry a child out of the building. Freeze said his son, Jeremy, 16, of Westminster, weighs 180 pounds. His son attends classes on the second floor and was one of two students taken to the school's stairwell.

School officials acknowledged that staff members must weigh the risk of remaining in the stairwell until firefighters arrive against the risk of injuring students by trying to carry them out of the building.

"The bottom line is that if any children are evacuated, I want mine evacuated," Freeze said. "How they achieve that is up to them, but it makes more sense to have him on the first floor."

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