Carroll school's plan for escape reviewed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A committee reviewing Westminster High School's emergency evacuation policy recommended adding one word to the document and urged administrators to consider purchasing equipment to assist in evacuating disabled students from the three-story building, said the school's principal, John Seaman.

Seaman said the committee's only meeting, which was held Tuesday and lasted about two hours, was "contentious at times" but productive.

"They were concerned about how quickly their recommendations could be implemented," he said. "They wanted guarantees ... which are difficult to give."

Seaman said he assured the committee that he would move as quickly as possible to address the recommendations.

"We want to move rapidly, but not with haste," he said.

The committee recommended adding one word to the evacuation policy where it calls for taking a student who is in a wheelchair, or otherwise immobile, to a stairwell to wait for the fire department. The new wording will instruct staff to take the student to the nearest "unaffected" stairwell, Seaman said.

According to Westminster High's new 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.

After a Dec. 21 trash fire in a second-floor boys restroom, parents complained that Westminster High's policy required disabled children to be taken to a stairwell to wait for firefighters while other students left the building. The school has about 1,800 students, three of whom are disabled and unable to walk out on their own.

In response to those complaints, Seaman formed the committee to review the policy.

As a result of the discussion, Seaman said, school officials also will increase the number of times they review the evacuation plan with staff members. The plan will be reviewed in a school stairwell four times a year - at the start of each quarter - instead of annually before the start of school.

In another move to reassure parents, he said he asked fire officials to inspect the school's stairwells to "tell us whether those areas are safe havens."

In addition to Seaman's efforts to address parents' concerns, schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he would create countywide emergency evacuation guidelines to assist schools in developing their own plans. He said that school officials, who have been consulting with fire officials, hope to finish the countywide guidelines this week.

Those who attended the meeting at Westminster High last week included Westminster Fire Chief Kevin Utz, school administrators and a teacher from the special-education department, an area resident who works in the fire-protection industry, a safety committee representative and parents of the school's three disabled students. Two of the disabled students also attended but were not members of the committee.

Seaman said the committee will not meet again because it accomplished its goals.

He said he asked the committee to examine the school's policy "for reasonableness and safety," as well as to review the staff's adherence to the procedures.

"They were of the opinion that our plan is reasonable but recommended that we move as quickly as possible to purchase transfer chairs," Seaman said.

Transfer chairs are evacuation devices used to help transport people who are unable to walk down stairs. With a transfer chair, a person moves from his or her wheelchair into the chair, and another person then guides the device down the stairs. Ecker said the school system is considering buying evacuation devices, such as transfer chairs.

In addition to the evacuation policy committee, Seaman created another panel to determine whether to relocate Westminster High's Learning for Independence program - a life skills program administered through the special-education department.

Some parents have pushed to have the program moved from the second floor to the first floor because of safety concerns.

Seaman said he formed the second committee, which would include some members of the first group, because relocation of the LFI program should be considered as a separate issue.

"We want to examine the use of our facilities," Seaman said. "We'll balance academic needs and safety. ... If it's a matter between academics and safety, we'll go on the side of safety."

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