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Bell

Under fire: Nova Scotia schools review school evacuation procedure

Sonja Weilgart-Whitehead, a grade 12 student in Nova Scotia, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Bell“While other students leave the building during fire drills, Sonja has to stay behind with a staff member in a refuge area.

In her case it’s a stairwell.

‘It honestly feels like I’m a second class citizen,’ said Weilgart-Whitehead.”

The full CBC article details reviews that the Nova Scotia school system is making to its evacuation protocols.

The depth of modern teaching concerns regarding civil lawsuits is evident in what has happened to Sonja. The school didn’t want to take responsibility for carrying her out of the school in the event of an emergency. The potential risks to Sonja, the school, and legal penalties were all deemed too great.

Doug Hadley, a spokesman for the Halifax Regional School Board, said the board defers to fire officials who have advised the area of refuge as the safest course of action.

“They’ve told us clearly that they believe there’s a far greater risk of injury in attempting to remove someone with mobility issues in an emergency than securing them in what they call an area of refuge and waiting a few minutes for fire officials to arrive and remove them,” Hadley said.

Sad to say, but I completely understand. I don’t agree, but I know the bureaucratic formula. I’ve seen similar things in support services. For example, many people living in the community aren’t allowed in their own basements. This is because they cannot be evacuated from them in the case of a fire in the minimum time allowed.

It seems absurd, cruel, and harsh but it’s not that the school, teachers, or administration don’t care about Sonja. It’s that a person lifting her out of the fire is responsible for her life. If they make even the slightest misstep under the most grueling of circumstances the school and educator involved would be embroiled in a horrific civil suit. Senior administrators were attempting to minimize risk for them and for Sonja.

Fortunately the school’s teachers have come up with a brilliant solution. They are in the process of training three staff members on how to manually lift Sonja out of the school. It’s a simple solution that works for everyone. There’s still risk, but not one so terrifying as leaving Sonja in a stairwell while the school is engulfed in flames. Now teachers can assess the relative risk and are empowered to protect Sonja in a safe manner, as the situation dictates.

When minimizing risks to people supported and ourselves, we as support workers have to be careful. Constant review of decisions and looking for ethical flaws is a very important part of the job as we continue to evolve in our role. We must constantly be on guard to correct oversights such as this one. They are inevitable; we are human and prone to mistakes. The trick is to recognize them and rectify the error as quickly as possible.

Congratulations to this school’s immediate recognition of their oversight and application of a brilliant solution.


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  1. Glad that the staff is going to evacuate this young lady with her classmates. We have always insisted our daughter be evacuated from schools. We have trained staff and students alike to safely carry her out in the event of a fire. We think it’s worth it knowing she isn’t left behind in a building on fire. It is only right that everyone be evacuated.

    Some chilling words we were told by a firefighter who would have been a first responder to the school our child went to regarding leaving her in a stairwell, “we MIGHT find her eventually because we use the stairs when we fight the fire.’ Don’t assume the firefighters will know where to find the student left behind, especially in the confusion of the fire.

    If someone is unable to be carried there are stair climbers that can be used to evacuate as well.

    • Thank-you T.Mac for your comment. It’s a great point that advocacy plays a crucial role in making sure that all people involved in a person’s support circle are aware of emergency protocols. Kudos to you for keeping those ever important lines of communication open.