Safety: Pandemic Edition

By Nina Galindo-Calvete, Riley Hilbert, and Leilani Quintero
APR. 23, 2020

Implementing fire drills and emergency codes for  safety are nothing new to us. For years and years these drills have been enforced and are strongly encouraged  all over the world in case of a real emergency scenario. The reasons are obvious as to why they exist; however, we must always remember to stay calm and exit any facility in a calm and organized manner. Experience has proven that cooperation is the key to leaving facilities safely, but there are other important factors in successful departure. Depending on how current your building is on emergency codes, your exit may be impacted. Regardless, it is recommended that you pay attention to the instructions included in any drill explanation, especially during these challenging times. We can understand how this relates to us in a pandemic era by first learning why they exist in the first place, what the drills actually are, and if or how they have changed at all due to Covid-19.

First, it is important to understand the history behind emergency codes and drills. Regarding fire drills, the history goes back to 1958 in Chicago, Illinois where a fire broke out in the Our Lady of the Angels Roman Catholic grade school and ended up taking the lives of 92 children and  3 nuns. Factors that led to the severity of this  incident included the building failing to meet a variety of codes and standard requirements which were in place at the time. Additionally, the interior consisted of combustible finishes and ceiling tiles. And the building lacked a sprinkler system. Since this incident,  the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) conducted a survey and found that 68 percent of all communities in the U.S. have made some type of physical improvements to school safety. In total, less than 10 people have passed away in the fifty years that have passed since the Our Lady of the Angels fire, proving that changes are being made. Not only does this give us an insight to the progress made in avoiding these types of emergencies; , but also  how these emergency codes magnify the detail of their purpose alone.

Second, there are several emergency codes other than the fire drill evacuation protocol. All of them, in fact, are color-coded with a particular protocol. In some schools, black is recognized as a bomb threat and orange is classified as an immediate evacuation from the building due to a strange odor or unsafe situation. Along with this comes yellow, which is recognized as a lockdown where only the security on campus may move around. Next is red which comes as a sheltering lockdown where students ought to hide underneath desks and only the police are allowed to move around on campus. In some schools, blue and green are also types of emergency protocols where blue is a medical emergency and 911 would typically be called, and green is preceded before yellow, and in this case, the windows are covered and the lights are turned off while teaching resumes. These protocols are all put in place to ensure the safety of the faculty and students so that the school environment can remain safe as a whole for the current and future attendees. This pandemic, however, probes the question of if and how these drills have changed at all due to Covid-19. 

Third, there is evidence of a few cases where, depending on location, fire drills along with emergency and safety codes are being implemented as only tests and not actually having students and faculty leave their buildings to follow a designated pathway appropriate for safety. Some cases, however, state that if there ever were a fire drill to occur, pre-Covid-19 protocols would be followed in order to issue complete evacuation as efficiently as possible. Regarding drills, students and faculty are required to wear masks and maintain a 6 feet distance between each individual. In the case of lockdown drills, students are to sit next to their desks or occupy the perimeter of the classroom instead of congregating in one corner as they were instructed to do prior to the pandemic. In addition, administrators will use the PA system rather than inspecting each room individually. Some public safety departments throughout the country also recommend staggering the release of classrooms during a fire drill to avoid crowding and having the students return to the classroom with washed hands. Coupled with this, it is also suggested for schools to explain procedures of a lockdown drill with photos and videos as opposed to physically conducting them. It is clear that with the lessons learned from tragedies in the past, a unifying community whose vision is set on safety and protection for all will work feverishly to ensure that no student will ever be harmed again.