by TOMMY PUGH - Students, teachers and administration all had different experiences in the Nov. 22 fire event. How did they deal with it?
WESTFIELD, Ind. (Nov. 22, 2019) - On a chilly November afternoon, Westfield High School was a sight to see. Students huddled in large masses in Riverview Stadium, mumbling, griping and even eating. Even more filed out of the building in waves, looking for their teachers. It was the site of another fire event.
Due to a malfunction in the sprinkler system, Westfield’s fire alarm caused a mass scramble for the exit. Being the third this year, the fire alarm was more annoying than surprising.
“My friend and I, we were talking about it, and it seems every Friday we have something fire-related,” Alana Halsted (9) said. “We call it ‘Fire Fridays.’ We’re expecting the unexpected. It’s very crazy, very hectic; it throws me off my schedule and also reduces my class time, which I hate.”
Students' routines were thrown for a loop. Being scattered throughout the building due to lunch, students lost their most valuable resource in the malfunction: time.
“Making sure that people, especially if they’re going from lunch or to lunch, know where their teachers are would improve the situation,” Marysol Obispo (10) said. “I was on the opposite side of school from where my class was, and so I was there by myself with nobody around me or knowing where I was.”
Halsted had a similar experience.
“I was coming from lunch and was going to bio,” Halsted said. “I didn’t have as much time to do stuff in that class, like get as much done on my review that I have for a test coming up.”
Valuables were also at risk during the fire. Backpacks and phones couldn’t leave with the students.
“I was a little worried because I had left my laptop in my room, so it would be bad if that burnt,” William Silhavy (10) said.
Halsted and Obispo were critical of the whole fire escape process. It was an unsettling situation, and fear still resounded in their minds.
“I was with my friends, but it was still chaotic and everything,” Halsted said. “It kind of had me worried that my teacher didn’t know where I was because it was just the end of lunch. It threw me off and I was a little worried, but it’s alright. It turned out alright in the end.”
Obispo shared a similar irritation, and believed the school should keep students more updated in real time.
“I get it, the school is under construction, so it’s bound to happen,” Obispo said. “But they should’ve known ahead of time that something was going to happen and warned us. I was on my way to lunch in the middle of the hallway, and the alarm just went off.”
While students may not experience it frequently, experienced teachers have countless practices with fires and drills and are prepared to adapt. Mr. Michael Marley, an engineering teacher, figured out how to overcome the problems, and let his class still run.
“I’m a project-based class; it’s robotics, so the kids were in the middle of working,” Mr. Marley said. “It didn’t really affect my lecture or disrupt the flow, so we were just able to drop what we had, go out to our spots, come back and pick up where we left off.”
While the students believed the fire went poorly, Mr. Marley saw promising results. Even then, there was still room for problems.
“I think with how unexpected it was, it went pretty well, especially for being during lunch,” Mr. Marley said. “All the teachers have to go find their kids during A lunch. I think had it happened a few minutes later, it could’ve been worse with passing period, and it could’ve been real confusion at that point.”
Overall, however, Mr. Marley believed the administration handled it well, and they proved highly adaptable as well.
“I think it went pretty smooth,” Mr. Marley said. “I think they got us back in the building pretty fast for how much they have to sweep and the fire marshal has to come in and approve everything. I thought that they did a good job of getting it done efficiently and effectively for the kids.”
Behind the scenes, a slew of things were happening simultaneously. With teachers and students scattered throughout the school, Mrs. Alicia Denniston and several other administrators were responsible for reuniting classes and assessing the cause of the alarm.
“We began, as an admin team, to check our rosters in terms of our teachers and check in,” Mrs. Denniston said. “We told our students to go out the nearest exit, so they did exactly what was right. But because of that, you had teachers needing to know, ‘Depending on if my students made it to lunch already, they would’ve gone out doors seven and eight, though students who were still in the hallways would’ve gone out the closest exit.’ Some of them were at the football stadium. We had to do some extra work to account for the students and where the teachers had landed because it was during passing period.”
Administration was also responsible for finding the cause of the fire and the risk involved. This was assessed through calls to a variety of groups.
“Immediately we had to figure out what was happening, so a call goes to our construction team, a call goes to our alarm team to figure out what set it off,” Mrs. Denniston said. “I still feel like people followed our protocols, and people did a nice job of getting out there.”
The work didn't end for administration with the fire. More phone calls and paperwork were done to keep everything on record.
“Every time there is a drill or real fire, we submit some things to the Central Office and our district safety team,” Mrs. Denniston said. “This will probably be something that they talk about at the district safety team to talk through with all of the administrators at the different buildings on what we learned from it. ”
From this situation, however, comes a lot of new information, information that the administrative team can use to keep students and teachers better informed, and information to create another realistic fire drill experience.
“Sometimes we’ll have teachers do some different exits instead, especially when we have exits that are closed and we see, ‘Well, everyone and their eighth cousin is going out door 33; who do we need to have shift over?’” Mrs. Denniston said. “It’s mainly that type of case. It will help us send messages out to teachers.”
Overall, though, Mrs. Denniston said that although the situation was surprising, it was successful but also left room for improvement.
“What was tough though was the fact that it happened during the middle of the lunches,” Mrs. Denniston said. “This was the first time that we had really had that scenario, so I think considering that, people still got outside in a pretty good amount of time; they were efficient. I still feel like sometimes students don’t get out quite as quickly as we would like them to, and I think in their mind they’re probably thinking, ‘Is this real? Are they going to get back on and call us off?’”
However, as a final reminder, Mrs. Denniston wanted everyone to know to stay warm.
“I’d recommend in these winter seasons, dress in layers or have a coat handy,” Mrs. Denniston said. “That was the other thing was watching people shiver out there, especially because with construction, you know we’re going to have some unplanned events or unplanned alarms, so it’s good for us to be on our toes.”