OPINION • BY A.J. CAMPBELL
Is there a chance your kid could break their leg this weekend and end up on crutches for 6 weeks? Do you know what would happen if there was an emergency evacuation at school and your child was not on the ground floor? Montgomery County Public Schools would leave them inside the building while all the other students left, and wait for emergency services to come and get them out.
You thought that your children would be helped by some helpful MCPS employee? No. They would be left behind. It is against MCPS policy to evacuate mobility impaired students up or down stairs.
Evacuation is possible with the use of an Evac-Chair. A kind of lightweight wheelchair that has been used in high rise buildings for 30 years and was used in the Twin Towers on 9/11. MCPS needs to make the chairs available and change their policy. And if they do make them available, there is a good chance that MCPS will avoid the $26 million dollar lawsuit that the New Rochelle School District has found themselves in.
My daughter was due to have a very painful foot surgery. Her foot would be broken in several places and hardware installed. She would be on crutches for at least 6 weeks.
As this was a planned surgery, I presented the school with a detailed letter from her orthopedic surgeon and asked for the safety plan. I am still waiting for a copy.
Piney Branch Elementary School, Takoma Park, MD.
My daughter’s school looks a little like the MC Esher diagram with all the stairs going up and down. There are no ramps or chair lifts. There is one non-student elevator that she can only use with a staff member. Her class is on the third floor, some four flights of stairs up and on the backside of the building. The elevator would be totally useless in most cases of evacuation. At no point did the school system suggest that they would take my daughter out of the building. Nor did they say they would provide an evac-chair.
When I tell parents the MCPS plan is to leave disabled kids inside the building, some tell me there is such a low risk of any kind of problem at school. But there is a pretty good chance that the school will need to be evacuated at some point in the year.
According to the 2013-2014 MCPS school safety report there were evacuations:
• At Piney Branch Elementary, there was one evacuation.
• At Takoma Park Elementary, there was a fire (non-arson) and an evacuation.
• At Takoma Park Middle school, one fire (arson) and one evacuation.
• At Montgomery Blair HS, there were two evacuations, among many safety incidents including a weapons incident, where the police were called.
Takoma Park Middle School, Silver Spring, MD.
Many of the schools in the survey had building evacuations at some point during the year. Getting disabled kids out of the building is not an abstract concept or some academic exercise. There were many schools in MCPS who had serious incidents requiring evacuation.
It was clear that no one will help her out of the building. Her only choice is to remain inside in the AREA OF REFUGE and wait for evacuation by emergency services.
What if she could not reach it? In the case of a riot, fire or active shooter, it would not be at all safe.
How are the disabled kids getting out? Well, the official policy bulletin says they are to stay on the same floor. Staff could help with a horizontal evacuation such as moving away from a fire or active shooter, but not up and down floors.
“… This staff person could assist the disabled individual in horizontal evacuation (movement from an area of hazard to an area of safety on the same floor).”
Up and down movement of disabled persons in stairwells should never be attempted by untrained personnel.
Should their removal from the building be required, trained firefighters or rescue squad personnel will perform this task when they arrive at the school.
Only under life threatening conditions should individuals attempt to remove disabled persons down a flight of stairs.”*
The thought of my daughter stuck, vulnerable inside a building with no way to get out terrified me. I knew what I had to. I put off the surgery until she could have a safe recovery.
Takoma Park Elementary School, Takoma Park, MD.
I am not aware of any evacuation chairs that MCPS has, nor at any point was it suggested to me as an option. I am told though, by the manufacturer that the Rockville municipal buildings have the evacuation chairs.
The EVAC-CHAIR started at $1400. No small price but it is the same price as an AED Automatic Defibrillator. Maybe we were sticker shocked when we saw the price of AEDs. But like AEDs, EVAC-CHAIRS are about saving lives in an emergency.
The chairs only weigh about 19 pounds and can be easily operated by a person at half the weight of the person in the chair. So a 150 pound person could evacuate a 300 pound person. The chairs can be kept on site and deployed as needed.
Change the policy!
The Justice Department has weighed in on this issue. Feltenstein v. CSDNR (City School District of New Rochelle (2014), where the New Rochelle School District failed to evacuate two students in wheelchairs when a fire broke out. The parent in the case had asked for the evacuation chairs and were denied.
The facts in the Feltenstein case are eerily familiar to my daughter’s school. On the third floor with no access a safe exit without a stairwell.
MCPS should change it’s outdated policy of keeping kids inside burning buildings, spend the money on the evac chairs. These chairs are in many of the government building in Rockville. If it is good enough for Montgomery County workers it should be at least as good for our kids.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A.J. Campbell is a freelance writer, graphic designer volunteer junkie and mother. She lives and works in Takoma Park with her daughter.
*Source: REGULATION MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Related Entries: COB-RA, EKA-RA