9.25.18 – Sun Sentinel –
Broward Schools say they’re taking steps to avoid some of the trauma and confusion caused by false fire alarms at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
The measures include having fire officials at the school to keep a close eye on the alarms and upgrading the systems at schools throughout the district to reduce the possibility of false alarms.
The district is also asking the state for a waiver to not do any more of the required fire alarms for the rest of the year at Stoneman Douglas, the site of the Feb. 14 massacre.
“In the case of Stoneman Douglas, you’re causing trauma every time you have an alarm, and we don’t want to do that,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said at a workshop Tuesday.
State and federal law for years have required 10 fire drills per school year.
After Stoneman Douglas, the state started requiring schools have at least as many “code red” drills, which prepare students for a shooter on campus.
The district plans to ask the state to reduce the number of required drills for all schools, including active shooter drills. The district says, in part, having that many drills is taking away from valuable time in classes.
The district is also looking at physical improvements to alarm systems.
The district already had planned to upgrade fire alarm systems at about 100 schools before the mass shooting on Feb. 14. These projects were funded through the $800 million bond referendum approved by voters in 2014.
Now, some of those plans are being updated to include a feature that’s not found in Florida schools yet — a delay mechanism that will allow administrators to assess whether the fire alarm is real before going off schoolwide.
The district plans to try that out at some schools, though it may not work everywhere, said Mary Ann May, chief fire official.
She said the system only gives an administrator 15 seconds to respond.
She said that works well in a controlled environment, such a theater program using smoke on stage. But it may not work everywhere, especially if the administrator isn’t close to the fire alarm. If the administrator takes longer than 15 seconds to turn it off, the alarm goes off as it would otherwise. “Fifteen seconds is nothing if you’re not sitting right next to the button,” Board member Abby Freedman said.
The district is also looking at a system that may offer different sounds, such as slow whoops and chimes, instead of loud horns. They’re also looking at ones where the sounds can be confined to one part of school, if the potential fire doesn’t threaten the whole campus.
District officials said they may try different approaches at various schools, but they wouldn’t give any specifics, saying it could be a threat to security if the public had details about how individual alarm systems work.
At least 10 alarms have gone off at Stoneman Douglas, the site of the Feb. 14 massacre, since school started Aug. 15; only three were planned. The alarms have caused some students to relive the trauma since a fire alarm went off during the shooting, the second one that happened that day.
“My daughter has struggled a lot on the days when the alarms go off,” Stoneman Douglas parent Heather Chapman said. “For her it’s the sounds, as well as the evacuations.”
Several alarms were attributed to a special-needs student pulling them, while others were blamed on faulty wiring. The most recent, on Sept. 12, was the result of a faulty switch on a pull station, officials said.
“This switch has been repaired and the fire alarm system is again functioning properly,” the district said in a statement.
Officials from the district and Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department have been assigned to Stoneman Douglas to conduct a joint fire watch.
“The watch ensures an appropriate fire official is positioned at the school’s main fire panel,” the district said in a statement. “In the event the alarm is activated, this individual will immediately silence the system and the remaining fire watch participants will investigate the cause of the alarm activation. In the event the threat is real, the alarm will again be activated to initiate appropriate evacuations.”
May said she plans to meet with Coral Springs fire officials within the next week to decide how long to continue this plan.
Many people have questioned why fire drills are needed at all, given how rarely an actual fire affects a school. But May said it’s still important for students to be familiar with them.
“What happens if they’re in a really unsafe situation outside of school,” she said. “I want them to see fire drills for what they are, a life safety feature. I want to train them so when they’re in a club that’s overpacked and there’s a sudden fire because of the decorative material that’s highly flammable, they know to move.”