When I was at school, we had regular unannounced fire drills. You’d be eating your lunch or doing a history test or whatever, and the bell would interrupt with its urgent, continuous ringing. We were so used to it that no one got over-excited or scared – everyone simply rose to their feet and looked at the teacher, waiting for the order to line up and follow him/her outside to the playground. We knew that we had to leave all our things behind, and we knew that we had to walk, not run. Occasionally you’d encounter a member of staff blocking a doorway, saying “This exit is on fire! Find another way out. Quickly and quietly, girls, quickly and quietly!”
Fire drills were always either a welcome break from a dull lesson, or an annoying interruption of free time or a fun class. But they worked, no doubt about that. They were routine, and our response was automatic: we heard the bell, we stood up, we walked immediately out of the building. It didn’t matter if it was a drill, or a real fire, or some idiot setting off the alarm – we had to react the same way every time, just in case.
Stand up, line up, and walk quickly and quietly outside via the nearest exit. That was the drill.
So anyway, the fire alarm went off in school yesterday for the first time ever.
It scared the crap out of me, as I didn’t even know we had a bell. My heart pounding, I leapt up in a panic from where I’d been sitting writing progress reports at my computer, and ran to the door, flinging it open to find all 5 of my English teacher colleagues doing the same. Two of them had classrooms full of children, who they simply left while they ran downstairs to see what was going on. Um… shouldn’t we get these children outside? I asked incredulously as the final teacher passed me, but I was ignored.
I dithered uncertainly in the corridor for a few moments, the only remaining adult on the top floor of a building filled with kids while a fire bell jangled loudly. Then I decided I could live with being told off for needlessly evacuating the floor, but probably not with leaving the children there to check if there actually was a fire, and then being unable to get back to them again. Everybody line up! I called as loudly as I could, before realising just how important the whole fire drill process actually is.
For a start, no one could hear me over the noise of the bell. They would’ve had to know what to do beforehand, because there was no way to give them instructions now.
Secondly, they were in a state of hysteria – some excited, some frightened – because they didn’t know what was going on, having never heard the bell ring before. Some of them were screaming, some were jumping around with their hands on their ears, and the majority were rising to their feet and running around like mad things.
Stand up… line up… walk quickly and quietly outside via the nearest exit. Yeah, right!!!
I desperately tried to herd them along the corridor to the stairs, but it was utter chaos, and I was hugely relieved when the bell finally stopped and someone yelled “It’s OK!” from downstairs. The teachers returned, classes were resumed, and normality was restored.
And if it had actually been a fire, quite a lot of children could have been trapped in a burning building while their teachers ran around panicking downstairs.
My conversation with the director afterwards, on the benefits of fire drills, was met with the same indifferent shrug as the one about air raid drills when we were on the brink of war with North Korea. It won’t happen, it’s fine. Hmmm. Questions such as “But what should we do? Where should we go? Do the children know what the bell means?” were once again dismissed with a nervous, uncertain laugh.
And, you know, the more I encounter these strange attitudes in my workplace, the more drawn I am to the idea of opening my own school and doing it all my way…