Schools Facing New Questions on Student Evacuations

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) - When the fire alarm sounds at Frost Middle School, 15-year-old Brian Glassmacher watches a parade of classmates march through the hallways and down the stairs. He knows they are heading out the door as he pilots his motorized wheelchair to a classroom where a teacher will be waiting.

Fairfax County school officials say that the designated room - with a window, near a stairwell and known to firefighters - is the safest place for Brian and other wheelchair users who happen to be on the second floor. Brian disagrees.

"No exceptions, I want to get out of the building," Brian said recently at his home in Fairfax Station. "When you're in that room, you're not really safe. I'm not happy if the other kids are outside."

Brian and his 16-year-old sister, Kailyn, both use wheelchairs because they suffer from a rare illness similar to muscular dystrophy. They are lobbying school officials to install so-called evacuation chairs that will allow them - with help from an adult - to get down the stairs and out the door.

The two teenagers and their parents say the chairs, which resemble lawn chairs on narrow rubber tank treads, are safe and effective. But Fairfax officials say that someone could get hurt and that it's smarter to wait for professional rescuers.

In the 31/2 years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, debates such as this one have become more common as governments and private companies focus on improving emergency plans. In recent years, schools in Maryland's Anne Arundel County and Orange County, Va., have purchased evacuation chairs, and school officials in Carroll County, Md., are considering them.

Hilary Styron of the National Organization on Disability's Emergency Preparedness Initiative said there is no clear consensus on whether evacuation devices or designated safe areas are better. She said the success of any emergency plan depends on proper training.

"There's not a set-in-stone answer here," Styron said. "The safe areas can be effective if the training and education is appropriate. The chairs and other evacuation devices also can be effective."

Dean Tistadt, assistant Fairfax superintendent for facilities and transportation services, said he is sympathetic to the Glassmachers' concerns. But he said school officials decided that the chair's risks outweigh the benefits.

"If we believed for a second that was a safer strategy, we would not hesitate for a second to buy those chairs," Tistadt said. He said he is concerned that staff members or students could be injured during the transfer to the evacuation chairs and that it would be difficult to ensure that enough employees are trained to use the device.

Tistadt noted that Fairfax firefighters, who helped develop the district's emergency plans, can be at any school in minutes and know where children in wheelchairs will be waiting. The staging areas, marked with signs inside and outside the building, are equipped with two flags, one to hang out the window and one to hang in the hall. Their adult helper has a two-way radio.

Kailyn, 16, who attends Woodson High School, said those assurances give her little comfort. She worries that firefighters might not get to her or her brother in time, or that they could be overcome by smoke. Because she has a tracheostomy tube to help her breathe, she thinks going down the stairs in an evacuation chair would be safer than being carried out a window.

"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.

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