MA firefighters adapting to COVID-19 for school fire drills

MA firefighters adapting to COVID-19 for school fire drills

HINGHAM, Mass. — As soon as the first school bell sounds in Hingham, Fire Lieutenant Chris DiNapoli is going to do what he would do any other school year. He's going to run students through a fire drill.

"The fires didn't go on hiatus because COVID[-19] came. Everything is still there," Lt. DiNapoli said.

But the challenge now is figuring out what a fire drill will look like in a pandemic.

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State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey sent guidelines to Massachusetts fire chiefs last week, reminding them of fire code requirements – including four fire drills per school year – and to meet with local school administrators to formulate a plan.

"Remember that the best response begins with effective planning," Ostrokey wrote in the memo.

The guidelines include safety provisions on everything from conducting fire drills to the proper location for alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

"Every student, in every school, must be advised of the fire drill procedures or take part in a fire drill within three days of entering school," the memo reads.

Although they're often overlooked by parents, DiNapoli said school fire drills are essential because the real thing happens all the time.

A classroom in Hingham High School was destroyed early one morning in May 2019 when investigators suspect a VCR overheated and caught fire. No one was hurt.

According to the Dept. of Fire Services, there were 236 school fires in Massachusetts in 2018. The fires caused an estimated $2.4 million in damage.

But school safety drills will look different in 2020 because of social distancing and smaller groups of children in the building, DiNapoli said.

For instance, if students are broken up into groups, with some at home and the rest in the classroom, DiNapoli said fire departments will have to conduct twice as many drills to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“Remember, kids just need the repetition,” said Doug Parisi, a retired Kansas law enforcement officer.

Parisi now works for SafeDefend, a company that sells products to protect against school shooters. “Does it get hard? Yes, because for the school administrators, the problem is well, ‘we like everybody in the south parking lot. That’s where we always do [the drill].’ Now you’re going to be using all your parking lots, rights? The south, the east and the north, because we have to social distance these kids. The policies are going to have to change,” Parisi said.

But Parisi believes students should be told if there's a real threat, so they can forget about social distancing.

“Now in a real emergency, and it’s something teachers need to talk to their kids [about], COVID goes out the window. If the building is really on fire, social distancing, don’t worry about it,” Parisi said.

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