Column: Looking back at fire drills


Fire drills in the United States became a big deal in 1958 after fire burned Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago. Children on the second floor of the school died because they couldn’t get to one of the fire exits.

Following that tragedy, fire marshals and legislators set up mandatory fire emergency training in all public buildings. This included holding routine fire drills.

Fire drills, of course, imply there are fire escapes, which is ironic since fire escapes had actually been around since the 1800s. The first one was developed in Grand Island, Neb., as a sort of self-lowering pulley arrangement , designed to enable traveling businessmen to rappel to safety from hotel windows.

The most popular fire escape, of course, is the multi-level stair-and-platform outfits attached to the outside of big city apartment buildings. Even when they were a vital part of fire safety, they mostly were used for teenage hand-holding and as a place to sleep during torrid summer nights.

While these fire escapes still exist and probably still provide meeting places for the lovelorn, their safety function has all but vanished due to modern sprinkler systems and advanced firefighting techniques.

We had fire drills when I was in school. When I was in the third grade, my school had no fire escape, and we were told to simply walk down the stairs in an orderly fashion. I remember wondering what we would do in case the stairs were on fire.

My sixth grade school had a fire escape installed just before school started. It was a curvy enclosed tunnel that started on the third floor and swirled down to the ground. Our principal elected to show everyone how it worked, so he launched himself into the opening and twisted down to the ground. Unfortunately, the installers had neglected to torque down one of the screws in the tunnel, and when the principal emerged at the bottom, the seat of his pants was completely gone, suspended somewhere between the second and third floor.

During the summer when the school was unoccupied, we enjoyed shimmying up the tunnel and sliding back down, a precursor of sorts to the modern water slide.

Unfortunately, one hot summer afternoon a little girl wormed her way to the summit and slid back down on a pre-heated metal slide. We heard there were blisters in unmentionable places and a lot of high-octane meetings with the principal and the school board afterward.

Before school started in the fall, a metal gate was installed at the bottom of the fire escape. Some of us wondered what would happen if they neglected to remove the gate before a fire drill.