As a special education teacher, nothing could strike a cold bolt of fear into
my heart like a fire drill. Everything about fire drills was stressful for my
students with autism, from the disruption in routine to the loud, piercing
noise. My first few fire drills as a novice, first-year teacher still give
me the shivers. Fortunately, fire drills don’t need to be so uncomfortable for
our students. A little planning and an hour or so of preparation are all you
need to put together a great fire drill plan.1. Make a binder. Heaven knows special education teachers have plenty of
binders, but this will be a binder you actually use! I always used red, so it
was easy to see, and printed a label for the spine with FIRE DRILL in all caps.
Inside, have a list of family/caregiver contact information, any important
medical information on students and a current class list. I also used a zipper
pocket with binder holes to store a few fidgets in case outside waiting time got
to be too much for any of the kids.
2. Make a picture-based “Fire Drill Instructions” card. Using your favorite
picture symbol software, outline each of the steps involved in the fire drill.
For example, the first picture might show the loud noise, then students getting
in line, then walking quietly down the hall and gathering in the safe spot
outside. Instead of using picture symbol software, you can also run a
practice drill and photograph the students participating in each step.
Photographs will help students who are not yet able to connect a symbol to an
actual experience understand what’s happening, and can be reassuring to any
child who is frightened or panicked during an actual fire drill.
3. Practice! Knowing what to do in a fire drill was one of the first skills I
focused on each school year, we practiced at least once a day for the first
couple of weeks of school. We practiced in every possible location, from
the cafeteria to the gym to the library, until each student mastered how to get
out of the building safely.
4. Write down every single detail that can help someone who does not know your
students get them to safety. Put it in the binder. Give a copy to special area
teachers and the principal, as well as putting a copy in your substitute folder.
5. Have headphones on hand for students with extreme sensitivity to sound, and
ask if the classroom can get a little advance notice of an upcoming drill.
My principal would call our classroom ten minutes before a drill during the
first month of school so we could prepare the students – after a few of those
advanced warnings, they become comfortable enough with the drill process to
handle unexpected drills like champs. I have met students who simply can’t deal
with the noise of a fire alarm due to sensory integration dysfunction, and for
them headphones are a lifesaver. I kept a couple pairs on a plastic hook
by the fire binder near the classroom door, my students who needed them could
grab them at the first sign of the drill tone.
Fire drills can certainly be stressful to everyone, teachers and students
included. Giving kids the tools they need to successfully navigate
stressful situations is one of the things we do best – applying those same
skills we teach each day to facilitating fire drills can make the entire process
smoother for everyone.