All but a few students from Professor Donald Tyree’s Native American studies class shuffled out of a second-floor classroom in Lincoln Hall as quickly as they could after a fire alarm sounded on Jan. 9. The students left were faced with a problem: a fellow student, Heather Brooks, who uses a wheelchair, had no way of getting herself down the stairs.
All but a few students from Professor Donald Tyree’s Native American studies class shuffled out of a second-floor classroom in Lincoln Hall as quickly as they could after a fire alarm sounded on Jan. 9.
The students left were faced with a problem: a fellow student, Heather Brooks, who uses a wheelchair, had no way of getting herself down the stairs. All elevators were shut down, a standard during fire alarms, and there was no alternative to the staircase on the second floor of Lincoln Hall.
Brooks said she was not pleased with the situation, although she was not surprised, having experienced a nearly identical situation when she was attending Washington State University. After discussing what they should do, a student in from the class volunteered to carry Brooks down the staircase.
“Frankly I am quite furious,” said Brooks, adding that she feels she should not have to rely on the kind acts of people around her for her safety.
PSU student Erin Wells, who was present at the incident, said that no one knew what to do-not even Professor Tyree had been trained for this type of situation. “Several sympathetic students gathered around her,” Tyree said. “One of the male students volunteered to take her down.”
Some students on the Portland State campus are concerned that no one knew what the proper procedure for the situation was. “They should have clearly written rules and evacuation policies,” said Michael Malinowski, coordinator of the Disability Advocacy Cultural Association (DACA).
Chuck Cooper, environmental health and safety consultant for facilities and campus safety officer, said the typical protocol in this situation would be for the person in the wheelchair to proceed to the staircase and wait for assistance from a fireman.
“The stairwell is designed to keep the fire out-it’s called an ‘area of safe refuge,'” Cooper said.
Cooper says that this protocol should be published in the Campus Emergency Manual, which is published each year by the Public Safety Department. The current edition of the emergency manuals contains rules to follow for fire safety, but no instructions for this type of situation.
A situation like this, according to Cooper, should be handled by campus security. “Emergency response is clearly in campus securities realm,” Cooper said. Chief of PSU Public Safety Mike Soto referred all comments to Cooper.
Tyree said a call was made to campus security when the incident took place, but the campus safety officer did not arrive until the alarm had already been turned off, and did not know where Brooks was.
Brooks was concerned for her safety and the possibility of the student dropping her. “It was dangerous to have him carry me down the stairs,” she said. “I was scared for him.”
Wells said that most of the students simply walked out of the building, barely noticing Brooks. “I was totally shocked that all my classmates left her,” Wells said. “I was so angry afterward.”
Carla Ueki, a student from Tyree’s class, said a total of six students stopped to make sure Heather made it out of the building, but Ueki said she was bothered by the general lack of knowledge among the rest of the students.
“I was so upset-if we hadn’t realized what was going on, she would have been on her own,” Ueki said. “She wouldn’t have been able to get out of the building.”
“I don’t think people realized how major a situation this was,” Brooks said.
Brooks, and the others involved, said that there should have been some kind of definite plan in case of an emergency like this. “I know there needs to be a written plan that is disseminated,” said Polly Livingston, director of the Disability Resource Center (DRC).