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Emergency Aware: School Fire Drills

As we are entering into winter months and heaters are being turned on, we are checking in with mid-Missouri schools to make sure schools are teaching your kids how to escape safely, if a fire were to happen.

The month of October was National Fire Prevention Month but some public schools in Mid-Missouri aren’t following their own policies to keep some of your kids safe.

In this special report, ABC 17’s Deborah Kendrick spent several weeks digging through data that shows some schools haven’t held a fire drill for a whole year.

We sunshine requested 13 school districts:

Columbia, Sturgeon, Hallsville, Centralia, Southern Boone, Harrisburg, Jefferson City, Cole R-1, Cole R-V, Fulton, North Callaway, South Callaway, and New Bloomfield.

Twelve got back with their fire drill logs; we are still waiting on Columbia Public Schools. Eleven out of the 12 school districts were following their policy but Jefferson City Public Schools wasn’t.

According to Jefferson City Public School’s policy, fire drills are suppose to be done monthly. The policy states, “a minimum of monthly fire, two (2) tornado, two (2) intruder/lockdown, and two (2) bus evacuation drills shall be conducted regularly during the academic school year.”

Belair, Callaway Hills, Cedar Hill, East, and Moreau Heights all failed to log down fire drills for the 2016-2017 school year. Every school within the district failed to do monthly fire drills.

District spokesperson Amy Berendzen told ABC 17 News there was some confusion between evacuation and fire drills, and if they could be used interchangeably.

“I think there lies a little bit of confusion because of course with a fire drill, it’s also an evacuation drill to get kids out of buildings,” Berendzen said. “It’s an evacuation and it’s a fire. I think we just need to look at our policy and make it crystal clear. A fire drill is a fire drill.”

She also said she doesn’t anticipate the school’s policy committee to necessarily lower the requirements with fire drills but will make amendments to make a clear difference between the two.

Berendzen said the district was made aware of the confusion last week, around the time ABC 17 News sunshine requested the fire drill logs.

Jefferson City Fire Department’s Division Chief Jason Turner told ABC 17 News the department has already been in contact with the district and will work with them on any confusion.

Turner said it is concerning that the district failed to conduct their required drills but, “I would also reassure the community that the district has had a great working relationship with us in making sure kids are safe and we will continue to do so.”

Since there isn’t a state law, the district didn’t violate any laws but their own policy. Turner said they will be checking back in with the district in January, when they do their annual inspection to make sure fire drills are being done. He told ABC 17 News, “this was a great learning experience for the district.”

John Warner, an emergency planning coordinator with Missouri School Board Association told ABC 17 News he doesn’t think a state-mandated law is necessary, as long as schools are doing the drills.

As of now, Missouri only requires active shooter drills and earthquake drills for those near the fault line. Warner said fire drills are just as important, even though fires in schools aren’t happening as often.

“I think maybe the reason for that (referring to Missouri not having a state law) is because it’s so ingrained in the culture that people are just used to the process occuring.”

Data from the Division of Fire Safety shows statewide, more than 400 fire-related calls were made to schools from November 2012 to Oct. 31, 2017.

In Boone, Callaway, and Cole County, fire-related calls were below 10 except for Jefferson City, which saw 40 fire-related calls. Some of the schools the fire department responded to were ones that didn’t show any fire drills logged.

“I would reassure parents, moms, dads just like my husband and I that your kids are safe,” Berendzen said.

Currently, Columbia Public Schools and Jefferson City Public Schools are the only districts of the 13 examined that require monthly drills; all the other districts ranged from one to two a semester.

Southern Boone’s Superintendent Chris Felmlee told ABC 17 News, “A lot of times culture and the community of the school districts is different and what works for one district may not work for another.”

ABC 17’s Deborah Kendrick officially requested Columbia Public School’s fire drill logs Nov. 3. Once we received them, we will see if the district is following their own policy to do them once a month.

Missouri PTA President Dorothy Gardner told ABC 17 News that the PTA has been advocating for nearly 25 years for the state to have a comprehensive plan when it comes to safety, including fire drills. Gardner said most Missouri parents don’t realize the different safety drills that are required by the state and ones that aren’t.

Dec. 1 is when lawmakers can prefile bills for the next legislative session.

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