“If high schools did not conduct multiple fire drills every year, I’d estimate we’d lose maybe a couple hundred students a year. Maybe double that,” State Fire Chief Bo Lubinskis said. “Just think about Gaines,” he added, looking down and shaking his head in sadness.
Fire drills are quite a serious topic in schools. No one wants high school students to die in a fire. To this end, state law mandates that fire drills must be held at least eight times a year. Rules about how often fire drills must be practiced were implemented in 1941 after a high school in Gaines, Michigan caught fire, and no one knew whether to stay or leave the burning building.
“Everything was a normal day until the fire alarm went off in the classroom,” former Gaines High School student Benjamin Canits said. “The teacher got up and told us to go outside away from the fire, but we all stayed in our seats. I remember wondering how we would be able to get outside. I mean there was an exit door right next to the classroom in the hallway, but we had never practiced evacuation, so I just had no idea what to do.”
Canits was not alone in the confusion on what to do when there is a fire. Many students in the school locked themselves in cabinets and closets in the classrooms proclaiming, “This will protect me!” Others remained seated and pulled their coats over their heads in the confusion or crawled under their desks and refused to come out. A few even went closer to the fire in the building as if drawn by the beauty of the flickering flames and the devourment of room after room in a fiery elegance.
Even many of the younger teachers became confused on what to do in this situation. Many continued teaching their class. Others stood in a daze muttering about “that darn racket” that the kids were making. Over time, though, these teachers were able to snap out of it and remember their extensive classes from college about how to leave the building when there is a fire.
As the minutes wore on, the teachers were forced to drag students out of the classrooms and outside to safety. Some students had to be carried out in their desks because the teachers were unable to pull them away from their work. While the teachers would go inside to pull more students out of the building, many students that had already been brought outside came back in because “it was really cold out there,” former Gaines student Mary Finch said.
Once the fire department showed up, they were able to help with the effort to bring the confused students outside of the building. They were also able to use their axes on many of the locked cabinets that students had locked themselves in to pull the students out of the cabinets and outside. “I know that my axe chopping through the cabinet door was dangerous to the kid, but the threat of fire was more dangerous,” former firefighter Dan Reldakovich said.
In the end, all of the high schoolers were dragged to safety by firefighters and teachers. Only three students suffered injuries in the form of superficial bruises on their arms and faces from getting into a fight with a firefighter that tried to bring them outside.
In 1941, after the Gaines incident, the state of Michigan passed Prevention Code Act 207. Setting a minimum of eight fire drills per school year, and creating other regulations on fire drills to ensure that they are done as often as possible.
The drills ensured that no student in the future would be possibly injured in a fire at a school. They would teach students how to leave a building, as that is a unique and rarely found skill in young people. “207 is a lifesaver,” Lubinski said. “Without it, we saw what happens at Gaines. Untrained high school kids just aren’t bright enough to get away from a fire. Some say that 207 is based on the notion that these kids are idiots, but even idiots deserve a chance, you know?”