GROTON — Complaints from some parents of students at the Florence Roche Elementary School have compelled officials at the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District to meet with the fire chief to revisit policies dealing with the conduct of fire drills in school buildings.
The Jan. 23 meeting was held in response to concerns raised by some parents after a fire drill was held at the Florence Roche School on Jan. 19 in which students were hustled from the building into 15 degree temperatures and icy conditions.
One irate parent who was present during the drill noted that a number of classes were taken from the building at 9:45 a.m. to a gathering place outside in their shirtsleeves leaving many shivering in the cold and others slipping and falling on uncleared ice.
Students as young as five, said the parent, were taken from their classrooms without being given the time to don coats and hats and forced to navigate over mounds of snow and down icy slopes to an unsheltered gathering area.
Admitting that the gathering area had been iced over and that some students did lose their footing, Florence Roche principal Russell Hoyt said that the paths leading to the gathering area were clear.
“The students ended up outside without proper dress because that’s what a fire drill is,” said Hoyt. “It’s to check to make sure they can get out of the building as quickly as possible so there’s no protocol for getting coats first.”
Of the results of the drill, Hoyt said, preparedness was “excellent.”
“The students exited the building in three minutes,” said Hoyt, adding that the school’s 570 children were outdoors for no more than a few minutes during the drill. “Outside, it took one minute to verify that all students were present and accounted for and in another minute they were all back in the building. The students were only outside for about five minutes.
“We hold drills at all times of the year and in all types of weather conditions to make sure that we are keeping students safe at all times,” explained Hoyt. “For fire drills, we set a pre-scheduled date at least two weeks prior to the event. We do have tentative dates throughout the whole school year but they’re subject to change by the Fire Department.”
“The School Department is supposed to do drills four times a year,” noted fire chief Joseph Bosselait. “They pick the dates. This most recent one was supposed to be in November or December but was put off due to weather. One of the things I want to discuss at a meeting with the principal is setting a cut off policy for lower temperatures in which they’ll let us know that they’ve decided to cancel. It’s the school’s responsibility to keep egresses open. They need to think about what to do before cold weather and after cold weather. My goal for the schools is to come up with a policy that says if there’s any kind of bad weather it automatically triggers a call to postpone a fire drill.
“It’s challenging to choose just the right time for a fire drill,” admitted Bosselait. “School officials want to be prepared for all kinds of hazards but I think an all weather meeting place is a nice thing to have. Although it’s nice to have playing fields and tracks as gathering places outside the building, when you have bad weather, particularly in the winter, they might be covered in ice or three feet of snow. I’m a big proponent of consistency in the use of a gathering place but it has to be an all weather, year round meeting place like another building or a parking lot which is likely to be kept clear year round.”
Nevertheless, Bosselait acknowledged that fire drills at school need not be held in bad weather, or cold temperatures, to be effective.
“We had a very good response,” said Hoyt of the results of last week’s drill despite having to field a number of complaints by parents as did Bosselait.
As a result, the chief asked for a meeting last Monday to discuss changes in fire drill policies in the district’s schools with Hoyt and other officials that he hoped would also include superintendent Joseph Mastrocola.
Currently, rules at Florence Roche call for holding fire drills every quarter with the next one scheduled for March.