Fires in girls’ schools are unfortunately a regular occurrence, and have been making headlines ever since the tragic accident in a girls school in Makkah, in March 2002, that resulted in the loss of many innocent lives.
What are the steps being taken to end this phenomenon? Why do fires break out regularly in girls’ schools and rarely in boys’ schools? Diana Al-Jassem interviews teachers and students from government schools to find out.REEM Al-Youssef, a student in a government secondary school has vivid memories of the fire that broke out at her school last year.
“We heard the fire alarm while we were in class and most of us felt afraid and helpless -- we didn’t know what to do. We had received informal training by teachers earlier, that taught us how to escape in case of any fire in the building, but I feel these training courses are meaningless unless the building has proper equipment to fight and control the fire,” she says.
According to Al-Youssef, the training courses taught them to start running quickly whenever they hear the fire alarm bell. “The problem is, that if all the students start running to use the same stairs -- which are the only means of escaping -- there will be big crowd there and students may get trampled in the rush, since the stairway is quite narrow.”
Al-Youssef remembers that when the fire broke out at her school, not all the students were able to arrive at the gate, the stairs were very crowded and many students fell and injured themselves while trying to get out.
Thankfully, the fire was contained and there were no major injuries. But how long can we afford to take chances with the safety of our daughters in this manner?
According to Thuriyah Aabed, a Saudi teacher in an intermediate school, the back gate and front entrance to girls’ schools are usually locked, ostensibly for the girls’ safety, once school starts. Moreover, there is usually a high fence around girls’ schools, which acts as a virtual gridlock and cages the girls in, preventing them from escaping in case of an accident.
“Most of the girls and staff would not be able to escape if a fire breaks out in the building, because the front gate is closed by the guard. I shudder to think what would happen if the guard leaves his post (which, happens very often) and a fire breaks out suddenly,” she said.
Many schools conduct mock fire drills to prepare the students to escape if any fire breaks out, but most of time, the students consider these exercises a kind of game, and refuse to take the instructions seriously.
Recently, there have been reports in many newspapers that the Ministry of Education has asked school authorities not to call the Civil Defense if any fire breaks out, but they should call the Ministry of Education first.
“We have no official paper that banning us from calling the Civil Defense, the Ministry of Education should issue a list of rules of the protocol to be followed if a fire starts,” said Mariyam Al-Jehani, director of a government primary school in Jeddah.
The main problem that girls’ schools are suffering from, is not having an ideal school building with open spaces. “Most of the girls’ schools are rented buildings, and the electricity in them is designed to take the load of apartments, not multiple ACs, like we have in most school classes,” she added. “If a residential building is used as a school, the electricity used becomes double, which is the main reason why there are more fires in girls schools than boys’ schools -- there are proper school buildings designed for boys,” Al-Jehani said.
According to Al-Jehani, the stairs that the girls use to go to their classes are too narrow , it is difficult to breathe on the cramped stairway during normal days, how can they use this stairway to escape quickly from a fire?
“The space around the stairs is around 84 centimeter and around 600 students are expected to escape through these stairs -- it is impossible to empty the building without having any wounded,” she said.
“Besides the male guard at the front entrance, the school’s female guard has another key, so if a fire start and the male guard is not there the female guard can open the back door for,” explained Al-Jehani.
Besides the keys to the front door, most schools have only emergency stairs and a fire extinguisher to protect the students in case of accidents.
No wonder then, that it seems like they are playing with fire, everyday.