Mom angry disabled daughter left behind in fire drills
Students with mobility issues remain in so-called 'area of refuge'
A Nova Scotia mother is trying to get the Halifax Regional School Board to change its fire evacuation plan so students with physical disabilities aren't left inside while everyone else vacates the building.
Lindy Weilgart's daughter, Sonja, is in Grade 12 at J.L. Ilsley High School in Halifax. Sonja has cerebral palsy and because she has a wheelchair, uses the elevator at the high school to get to her classroom.
Weilgart said on one occasion when the elevator broke down, she inquired about the possibility of someone carrying her 100-pound daughter up the stairs so she wouldn't have to miss class every time the elevator was broken.
School officials told her that having someone carry Sonja was not an option, even in the event of a fire, she said.
'I just feel like I'm a second-class citizen and that my safety doesn't really matter.'— Sonja Weilgart-Whitehead
"I was informed, even though she's only 100 pounds and it's only two flights of stairs, that was out of the question," Weilgart told CBC.
"The fire officials — who I defer to in matters of fire but not necessarily disability — seem to think there would be a high chance of injury if someone was carrying her. But I am an older female and I've carried her without any problem up stairs, not just down and more flights than that."
Instead, fire officials said the safest course of action is for Sonja to be taken to a stairwell — a so-called area of refuge — and remain there with a staff member until a firefighter reaches them.
Sonja said each time J.L. Ilsley High School students go through a fire drill, she and a staff member wait in a stairwell while everyone else evacuates the building.
"Honestly, I just feel like I'm a second-class citizen and that my safety doesn't really matter and that it just makes me feel like I'm not as valuable as all the other students filing past me," she said Tuesday.
"I feel like they don't realize what it feels like to me to just be there abandoned and expected to wait there while fire officials come and rescue me."
Sonja said staff members have told her they would carry her out of the school "in a heartbeat" if they were allowed.
"I would hope that nobody would leave me behind in a real emergency but I just feel unsafe if it wasn't practiced and planned," she said.
"I just sincerely hope that I have some faith in my fellow classmates and in my teachers and the staff at J.L. that they will finally see how poor the optics on this issue are and be willing to open up their minds about this."
Willing to sign waiver, says mom
Weilgart said she would be willing to sign a waiver indicating she would not hold anyone responsible if something happened while her daughter was being carried by a staff member.
"I think each parent and student, if appropriate age and so on, should have a strong amount of say into how they want to be evacuated and that carrying be on the table," she told CBC News.
"If this is for all students in the Halifax Regional School Board and any physically disabled students and I think impressionable students, their classmates will just get a really bad message from this."
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.
"We believe that this is the safe and surest way to get them out of the building not only out of the building, but out of the building uninjured."
Hadley said there are different policies in place for other emergencies such as chemical spills, gas leaks, bomb threats and school shootings.
He said the area of refuge at J.L. Ilsley High School is the landing of a stairwell that has a fire rating of two hours. That means it would take two hours for fire to breach the doors.
"We take steps to secure these areas to ensure that they can be held safely for a few minutes until fire safety officials can arrive so what we're doing is the same thing that would apply in hospitals and seniors complexes," he said.