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It was only a test

Jane Stebbins

FARMER’S KORNER – A Molotov cocktail tossed into a vestibule at Summit High School sent hundreds of students looking for open doorways, one of which was inaccessible due to heavy smoke.

Teens and teachers streamed out of the doors as smoke filled the vestibule and poured into a nearby stairwell at the northeast corner of the building.

Most of the school’s 785 students took the fire alarm in stride, complaining about the cold weather outside and making comments about how they enjoyed fire drills when they fell in the middle of tests.

A few looked confused, particularly those who came down the northeast stairwell only to find the vestibule filled with heavy smoke.

But it was all a drill, and only principal Frank Mencin was in on the secret.

According to Red, White and Blue Fire inspector Jay Nelson, state law requires schools to conduct a fire drill once a month.

The goal is to train students to exit the building safely and calmly, even if hallways are filled with smoke.

This time, the principal wanted to throw a little twist into the procedure.

“He wanted to simulate a real situation instead of the same old fire drill,” Nelson said.

“Usually, the students are a little nonchalant. Now, when we throw the real thing in there, it adds a bit of realism and panic to it. It shows that a fire drill is a fire drill, but any time that alarm goes off, they should expect the worst.”

Tuesday afternoon’s test wasn’t quite the worst students could face.

The smoke – the same type used at dances to create fog – is water-based and safe to breathe. But, like real smoke, it’s thick and obstructs views. That was the goal behind this fire drill, Nelson said.

At 1:30 p.m., firefighters began blowing smoke into the vestibule at the northeast end of the building.

Thick smoke billowed up the stairway as smoke detectors pealed. While students in the main academic wing didn’t see the smoke and exited out the student doors, the smoke forced those coming down the stairs to make the decision whether to forge through the smoke or retreat and find a separate, safer exit.

The Red, White and Blue Fire Department has conducted similar drills in the past, but not on such a large scale and none that required students to find alternate escape routes. They’ve had no problems in the past, either, although they were prepared to call for backup should panic break out.

“The school treats this as a real incident,” Nelson said. “There was a little confusion, a little congestion, but that’s why we conduct these.

“Next time we’ll plan something a little new and different,” he said. “We want them to say, “What’s next? What are they going to do next?'”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or

jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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