School fire alarm protocols change after shootings

Southwest Michigan

HARTFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — It used to be that if a fire alarm sounded in a West Michigan school, students evacuated immediately. That’s no longer the case in an increasing number of districts.

“It’s a total change from the way we’ve done things for years,” said Gary Brown, the chief safety officer at Van Buren County Intermediate School District.

On Monday morning, when an unscheduled fire alarm went off at Hartford High and Middle School in Van Buren County, the students sheltered in their classrooms while administrators investigated.

“We tell the kids to shelter in place,” Principal Dave Janicki explained. “We do not evacuate.”

Instead, the school officials call police, pinpoints which alarm sounded, check security cameras to see if someone tripped it, and walk the halls and grounds looking for anything suspicious.

On Monday, the culprit turned out to be a malfunctioning alarm.

Harford Public Schools, which is part of the Van Buren Intermediate School District, changed its fire alarm protocol last spring after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a fire alarm sent students streaming into the hallways — and the path of a gunman. Seventeen people were killed.

A fire alarm played a critical role, too, in a 1998 shooting that killed four students and a teacher at a Jonesboro, Arkansas, middle school. In that case, a student pulled a fire alarm before running outside to shoot evacuees as they filed out of the school.

“You have to change with the times,” Janicki told 24 Hour News 8 Monday afternoon. “It’s unfortunate that we have to do that, but we look at (the change) as a positive thing also. We’re doing something we know keeps the kids safe and that’s our number one priority.”

Gary Brown suggested the potential protocol change to Van Buren ISD’s 13 districts, though it was up to each district whether to implement it.

“We’re seeing how these perpetrators of school shootings are killing people and what we’re doing is we’re mitigating that threat,” Brown told 24 Hour News 8. “We’re not just sitting back and saying ‘I hope that doesn’t happen here.’ We’re being proactive.”

Teachers can make the call to evacuate immediately or at any point while the school is investigating if they see smoke or fire.

But Brown said schools are built to be very fire safe.

“The last (fire) fatality in a school was back in the ’60s in Chicago,” he said.  

Hartford senior Makiah Tripp is happy to see the change in alarm protocol, though she’s sad it’s necessary.

“It is really weird because it’s getting really scary out in the world,” she said.

She never worries about a fire in school.

“My main concern is someone pulling the fire alarm just to get everyone outside to shoot them of something,” she said.

While it’s up to local districts to determine how to respond to fire drills, school leaders around West Michigan say it’s a conversation they’re all having, and many districts are choosing shelter in place and investigate before they evacuate.

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