‘Small fire’ sends elementary students to high school for the day

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Students, picked up by parents, step out of Guilderland High School, several hours after a small fire caused the evacuation of Lynnwood Elementary; the schoolchildren had been bused to the high school.

GUILDERLAND — A small fire at Lynnwood Elementary School at about 10 a.m. on Thursday morning started with a smoldering motor in an exhaust fan, prompting an immediate evacuation that led to all of the school’s students being bused to Guilderland High School for the day.

Lynnwood students sat on the risers in the West Gym, with their teachers, organized by class. Parents and guardians arrived throughout the day to pick up their children, and those who weren’t picked up were taken home on their usual buses, after being dismissed at 1:30 p.m., said Superintendent Marie Wiles.

Meanwhile, power was restored at Lynnwood at about 1 p.m., she said. A plan was put in place to open the school from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday night so that students who wanted to could pick up their coats, backpacks, and other belongings.

The fire was in a motor that is part of an exhaust fan in the maintenance department’s receiving room, Wiles said.

The first indication that something was wrong was that lights were flickering in the school, Wiles said. She and other administrators initially thought the problem was related to the previous day’s heavy snowfall weighing down tree limbs and power lines.

A maintenance worker was able to spot the smoldering motor right away, Wiles said, and pulled a fire alarm.

Students evacuated immediately, she said. “As soon as we heard that students were evacuating without coats, we sent buses over to shelter them,” she said.

The temperature in Guilderland at 10 a.m. was just below freezing, about 29 degrees, with wind at 5 miles per hour, according to The Weather Channel.

After students had waited outdoors for “a good 15 or 20 minutes,” Wiles said, the buses arrived — many of them driven by mechanics and others filling in, since drivers were not at the bus garage mid-morning — and students spent 15 or 20 minutes sitting inside the buses while administrators waited to learn if the fire department would give the all-clear for re-entry.

“They did,” she said, “but then there was no power in the building at all, so it was very dark and soon would have been very cold.”

Administrators didn’t want to leave students inside the buses any longer at that point, she said, and decided to send them to the high school, “because we knew we had a large space there, and the capacity to provide lunch, and we had a system for connecting parents with their children.”

The high school is the first place where students from any other building in the district would be evacuated in an emergency, Wiles said. The district’s emergency plan also specifies backup locations, she said, that are within walking distance, in case transportation is not available; Lynnwood’s backup location is the town hall.

A few Lynnwood staff members drove to the high school ahead of time, to set things up, and the rest of the teachers rode on buses with students, to reassure them and keep them calm, said Wiles. “The students were awesome, so well-behaved and understanding.” Buses left Lynnwood at 11 a.m., an hour after the evacuation.

At the high school gym, there were no planned activities; there was some discussion of showing a movie, but setting it up would have taken too long, Wiles said.

The entryway to the West Gym at the high school was blocked off by a large table staffed by Lynnwood office workers and teachers, with district administrators and several police officers also nearby.

Parents picking up children went in only as far as the table, where they filled out a form stating their name and relationship to the child, and showed a photo I.D. when asking for the child to be sent out; they showed the I.D. again when the child was handed over.

“All things considered, I think it went really well,” Wiles said, “thanks to a lot of people who jumped into action. Not just Guilderland faculty and staff, but Guilderland Police, Fort Hunter and Guilderland fire departments, the high school staff — everybody jumped into action.”

Administrators and staff had done “tabletop” practices evacuating students to the high school but had never done any drills involving children.

“We were commenting,” Wiles said, “that it was actually a good experience, to try out the plan in what was a stressful, but not a horrible, set of circumstances.” No one was injured, and nothing was damaged, she added.

The district will use this experience to fine-tune and improve its plan, she said. 

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