25 Investigates: Schools not following fire drill laws meant to keep students safe

25 Investigates: Schools not following fire drill laws meant to keep students safe

The Massachusetts Fire Code states schools must conduct at least four fire drills every school year, but 25 Investigates found some schools are not following the law with inconsistent drills and sloppy record-keeping.

Hanson Fire Lieutenant Charley Barends told Boston 25 News conducting fire drills is one of the most important things he does for his department. Boston 25 News joined Barends at Hanson Middle School on Thursday as 478 students practiced walking out of their school. It’s an exercise performed at all schools in Hanson at least four times a year.

“Not only do we worry about evacuation, we worry about accountability,” said Barends.

Content Continues Below

School fire drills are important because real fires are not rare in state schools. In 2017, there were 263 fires at schools in Massachusetts, injuring four firefighters and causing $2.8 million in damages.

25 Investigates requested records from 25 school districts across Massachusetts to see how schools are practicing to keep children safe.

In addition to holding four fire drills per year, the state fire code also requires one of the fire drills be held within the first three days of class. Schools must also keep detailed records of all the drills conducted.

In Brockton, Arnone Elementary School and South Middle School had only conducted one fire drill as of May 9.

In Andover, Shawsheen Preschool didn’t hold its first fire drill until November 30, three months after class began. Bancroft Elementary School didn’t run a fire drill until December 3.

Records show Worcester and Shrewsbury conducted drills on Saturdays and Sundays. When 25 Investigates asked about the weekend drills, both school districts insisted the dates were clerical errors.

Do you have a tip for a story that you think needs investigating?  Contact 25 Investigates or leave us a message at (800) 883-6925.  If your story is one we think we can dig into, we'll contact you back.

25 Investigates discovered many schools didn’t conduct a fire drill in the first three days of class, as required by the state fire code. Some schools waited weeks before holding their first fire drill. We also found inconsistent record-keeping. Some schools, like Hanson and Falmouth, follow the law and keep detailed records. Other schools, like Peabody and Shrewsbury, recorded minimal information.

25 Investigates brought our findings to Massachusetts Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey. He admits when it comes to fire drills, the schools and local fire departments are left to police themselves.

“Those decisions really are hatched at the local level,” said Ostroskey, “It’s operated by the local entities, so it is between the school district and the local fire department.”

Ostroskey told 25 Investigates he didn’t think more oversight was needed.

In September, a fire drill inside Eleanor N. Johnson Middle School in Walpole revealed the alarm system wasn’t working. According to the inspection report, the sirens and lights didn't go off. The alarm system was later fixed.

We showed the report to parents, who said it was a perfect example of why fire drills are so important.

“It’s concerning,” said Jessica Cook, the mother of a seventh-grader.

“We have to trust that the people who are watching after our kids during the day are doing their job,” said Michelle Wilmont, whose daughter also attends the school.

Two school districts, Fitchburg and Quincy, never responded to our request for records. 25 Investigates has submitted an appeal with the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Timothy Luff, the Assistant Superintendent and Records Access Officer for Natick Public Schools, responded to our public records request within the 10 business days granted by law and stated he could have the district’s fire drill records sent to us no more than fifteen business days from May 10.

We have uploaded copies of the fire drill records we received: