Today, my elementary school took some time out of the morning to have an evacuation drill.
When I think of these kind of exercises, I remember my time in elementary school, when the ~30 minute affair was largely viewed as an inconvenience to most of the teachers, and a source of relief for students, who would spend ~30 minutes less inside the classroom having their heads stuffed with knowledge. When I was alerted to the impending drill this morning (only about 5 minutes before it occurred), I expected much of the same. An alarm would go off, students would scurry outside and stand well away from the building for a few minutes, then file back in in an orderly fashion once the fire fighters gave the all clear.
The first major difference between the fire drills I experienced as a kid and an evacuation drill in Japan is that there was no simulation of the alarm going off as a way of “surprising” the students, who may or may not know about the drill that day. Instead, one of the instructors had a script and sat in the A/V room to prompt the school, first to a serious earthquake.
Jishin. Jishin desu. Followed by, “All students: dive under your desks.”
Notice my syntax. Periods. Not exclamation marks. This was done in a formal way. Immediately, I heard the tell-tale sign of students pushing their chairs back and getting down on the floor. After the “danger” of the earthquake had passed, the instructor prompted students to make their way outside because, as a result of the earthquake, there was now a fire in the building (presumably originating from the kitchen).
As I walked outside and looked back at the building to see the students jog (not walk) out while maintaining their places in line with their class, I noticed the second big difference between the exercises back in Miami and the ones in Japan. Most of the students had cushions folded over their heads and tied under their chins. Of course, this wouldn’t be a precautionary measure in Miami since that city doesn’t experience earthquakes, but the cushions are there to protect the students from falling objects during and after such an event. Do students in California or other earthquake areas keep head cushions by their desks?
All the sixth grade students went down this chute, which guided them safely to the ground, where a team of instructors waited to catch them. The way it’s designed, they kind of spiral their way through, which makes it so they don’t drop too quickly.
After lining up, the school body heard a talk from the fire fighters, and then received more instructions, this time from the vice principal. We were moved to another area of the field – all but the sixth graders, who were all sent up to the third floor where their classrooms are. The sixth graders were to use an emergency chute and practice jumping off the balcony in it as part of the fire fighters’ procedures. It proved kind of inconvenient, since there are ~120 sixth graders and only one chute, which takes a little while to set up. I asked the principal later, and he said that in a real emergency, there were other ways to get down from that floor. Still, every sixth grader jumped, and made it safely down to the ground level with the assistance of three instructors who were holding the bottom of the chute to catch them all.
The rest of us were presented with fire extinguishers, and everyone was given instructions on how to use it, and some time to practice hauling it, pulling the pin, and aiming it at a sign post with a fire symbol on it. Teachers went first, and then some students were given the opportunity to try. The extinguishers were filled with water for the simulation. None of the students goofed off and sprayed their friends or broke an extinguisher.
It didn’t end there.
The fire fighters filled one of the classrooms with smoke. They put some vanilla in it for some reason, but it was otherwise intensely thick and spilling out of the window and door cracks the way real smoke would in the event of a fire. The entire student body eventually walked through a smokey hallway and had to duck down and navigate the smoke room, using their hand towels to cover their mouths, and experiencing the uncomfortable and disorienting feeling of not knowing where you’re going or where the room exit (to the outside) might be. The only guidance in that room was the fire fighter’s voice at the location of the door, which he only opened once the first kid in the group made it through.
Now that’s what I call an evacuation drill. It was engaging and educational, and took over an hour altogether.
I didn’t learn much about fire safety back when I was in elementary school. It wasn’t until I got older and began attending conventions, concerts and the like, that I ended up taking some crowd control and fire safety certification courses. I learned about what happens in dangerous situations, and how a clutch of informed people keeping everyone focused and in control could have helped save more lives. These are skills that everyone can benefit from, and it’s interesting to see that, at least in Japan, the knowledge is imparted upon the masses from a young age.
And they all took it like champs and treated the exercise seriously.
Miami could learn a thing or two about how an evacuation drill should be run.