Problem: First Responders aren’t always privy to school’s lockdown policies

*Editor’s Note: This article was readied for publication immediately prior to the recent school shooting incident in Ohio. The article was not written in response to or  meant in any way to critique the incident or the men and women who responded to the call. In light of the frightening reality that this will not be the last incident of this type RescueDigest, in accordance with it’s mission, is publishing this article in the hopes that it may contribute to communication, coordination, and preparation among the different branches of emergency services that are called upon to respond together to such incidents.

Schools are required to practice both fire drills and active shooter drills. The latter are termed “lockdown” drills. In a lockdown scenario, students are to remain locked in their classrooms with all blinds drawn. The students should be positioned away from windows, out of sight, and preferably protected behind bookcases, desks, etc. Conversely, in a fire drill, students are taught to immediately leave the building and line up outside. Do all responders in your community know what to expect in either situation?

The Situation

How many non-law enforcement emergency responders have read or ever seen their local school’s lockdown policy? I specified “each school’s” because these plans are school/building specific. Often written by each school’s principal (hopefully with the assistance of the local police department), they are not a one-size-fits-all plan, nor will arriving units pull up and see orderly groups of students outside of the building.

Imagine this active shooter situation:
• The building is a 1960s era one-level school
• There is no fire sprinkler system
• There are large (near floor to ceiling windows) around the building
• From outside it’s easy to see into each classroom, and
• The cafeteria has walls of windows

The shooter decides to detonate explosive devices or set fires as he/she is in the building. Fires ensue.

Initially the active shooter arrived and, with a semi-automatic weapon, started firing from the playground (which is just outside of the cafeteria). The shooter fired upon one hundred first grade students eating their lunch. The teachers and lunch aides did as trained and immediately began closing the blinds covering the windows. Inevitably, two teachers were shot.

School Drill Considerations

How It Shakes Out

Pandemonium break out as children react to the situation. A few students are hit and began bleeding. The remaining teachers gathered the terrified students. Per the school’s lockdown plan, the teachers usher the students in single file down the metal grate stairs off of the cafeteria that led into the basement. The basement contains the school’s mechanicals – multiple boilers, hot water heaters, electrical panels, fuel oil tanks, etc.

Because of the students’ distress it takes longer than usual to assemble them amongst the boilers. The basement has minimal lighting. Some students whimper in the dark. Several are injured with no way to receive medical care and few if any available first aid kits. The teachers have no communication means with the rest of the school building.

The active shooter, having gained access inside the school, detonates devices and set the building on fire. Shortly after, the fire alarm system is activated. The basement alarms blare, and teachers could now no longer communicate with students. By this time the police department has the shooter cornered, and neutralize the threat.

Arriving fire and EMS units are cleared to proceed to the scene and begin evacuating and rescuing students from the building. They check the classrooms, gymnasium, cafeteria, library, and offices.

Who Knew?

• How many of you reading this would check the basement on a primary search?
• What if staff were too injured, in shock, or no longer present to advise responders that students were evacuated to the basement?
• How many police officers on scene – now dealing with the criminal investigation/perimeter control/distraught parents/media/etc. – would recognize the need to advise fire department and EMS personnel that the school’s lockdown plan provided for in-place-sheltering in the basement?
• Would police officers, if they knew the plan’s directive, assume firefighters knew it also?

Communication and pre-plans are paramount. Fire Marshals inspect schools annually. They review any changes to fire drill and lockdown plans. They should also share sheltering locations in the lockdown plan with responding personnel, regardless of whether the community has a volunteer, paid, or combination department. When police departments assist schools in writing their lockdown plans, place a couple of phone calls or send out a quick email letting the Fire Marshal’s Office or Fire Department know to check the plan.

What We Teach and Preach

In the fire service, we are taught to evacuate buildings. We teach and preach to the public to leave a building if it is on fire. Sure, there are a few exceptions to that rule; hospitals, nursing home facilities, and detention environments are considered “defend in place” occupancies. Clearly, certain individuals are too sick or physically unable to evacuate, and criminals are better accounted for than running loose on the streets. But these buildings are specially designed to have fire areas, and limit fire spread through compartmentalization (that’s a separate article on fire codes).

Typically though, our focus is on evacuation and care outside of the danger area.

The concept behind defend in place is similar to a lockdown plan. In both instances, the mindset is not to remove everyone from the danger areas (though that should remain an ideal). The mindset instead is to protect victims by isolating them from harm as best as possible.

Once the scene becomes sufficiently safe to affect rescue, responding firefighters and EMS personnel need to know that an entire grade may be wedged in the basement among the boilers, and other equipment, with limited egress doors and few, if any, windows.

Is a basement shelter the best place? Unequivocally, no! Is it reality for many schools? Unfortunately, yes. New schools are designed with security and fire safety in mind. They should wholly subscribe to a concept of life safety for naturally occurring and human caused disasters.

But there are still many, many schools throughout the world that are decades old. Sometimes the only way to maintain student safety is to compromise and utilize unconventional areas as the best shelter from a particular area of the building. Those unconventional areas need to be communicated to fire department personnel, before the incident occurs and it’s too late. Better yet, contact the school and ask if you can observe a lockdown drill. There is nothing comparable to first hand knowledge.

Every live situation is different and must be dealt with on a case by case basis. The idea isn’t to practice for every possible eventuality. Your goal as a firefighter, law enforcement officer, EMS or other responder is to learn the procedures and goals of other branches of emergency service at major incidents such as school fires or active shooter incidents and then to practice working together to achieve those goals. It is only through this communication and practice can responses work together to effectively manage these most critical of incidents.

Goal: To make first responders aware of importance of knowing the differing lockdown policies that may be on place in their town’s schools and buildings

For more information on Active Shooter School Response, see Greg Friese’s Everyday EMS Tips (not just for EMS) Education Mashup on the subject.


About The Author

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Karen A. Facey is a CT Certified Fire Marshal, and works for CT’s largest geographic municipality. Owner of Fire Facts Code Consulting, Karen has her B.S. in Fire Science from the University of New Haven, and M.S. in Administrative Science with concentrations in Emergency Management, and Homeland Security/Terrorism Issues from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Fire Facts Code Consulting provides code public education; fire code consulting; design services for new construction and renovations; pre-inspection to prepare for fire and insurance inspections; and risk assessment, disaster planning, recovery and continuity planning for businesses and governments. Fire Facts can be reached at (203) 733-8380 or by email at


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