Schools Facing New Questions on Student Evacuations

Equal evacuation for the disabled is one of challenges posed today

"They want to be treated as equals," said Maureen Glassmacher, their mother. "They know they have limitations, but they know there are ways around them."

Diane Ferguson, a safety specialist with Anne Arundel schools, said the district used to have a policy similar to Fairfax County's but switched to evacuation chairs a few years ago. "We decided we liked the idea of getting these children out instead of leaving them in an area for the fire department to get them," Ferguson said. "Some of these kids were frightened up on the second floor."

Ferguson said the district has about 80 chairs, which cost about $2,300 each, and began installing them in 2002 in all two-story schools with students who use wheelchairs. Adults at the schools volunteered for training, and two are assigned to each chair, in case one is absent. There have been no fires, but Ferguson said the chairs have been used successfully in drills.

Anne Arundel chose the Evacu-Trac, sold by Garaventa Accessibility in British Columbia. The chair, which weighs about 40 pounds, does not require electricity or a battery and has rubber treads that grip the stairs. The chair moves only when someone is pushing a lever, and stops automatically, even on steps, if there is no pressure on the lever.

Carroll County Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said officials there are considering adding the chairs after a high school restroom fire in December. Two students in wheelchairs waited for help with an adult employee in a designated spot near a stairwell.

Ecker said the fire was extinguished quickly, but staff members carried the disabled students out before firefighters arrived. Some families said the students should have been evacuated with their peers, and the school agreed to reevaluate its policy.

Montgomery County's fire policy is similar to Fairfax's. Prince William County has some chairs, but students in wheelchairs attend classes on the first floor only. In Loudoun County, earth berms are built at new schools to allow ground-level access from each floor.