Faulty smoke detector triggers evacuation

Admin considering changes to school’s emergency response.

Ash Mehta, Olga Muys, Karrie Huang, and Leena Hussein

Freshman Graham Sine sits under a hot sun on the lacrosse field after a smoke alarm went off at the start of third period Thursday in the 700s building. Sine said he thought the evacuation to the lacrosse and football fields was mostly efficient. “I think it was pretty smooth,” Sine said. “It took a long time for everyone to come in, though. If there was a real fire, I don’t know if that would be a really good idea.” Photo: Neil Rathi

After a jarring third period fire alarm on Thursday afternoon, administrators are reassessing Palo Alto High School’s emergency evacuation plans.

The alarm prompted a 30-minute evacuation to the lacrosse and football fields after what Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said was a malfunction in a smoke alarm in the 700s building. 

“When you have thousands of smoke alarms, one of them is bound to go off when it’s not supposed to,” Berkson said. 

Amid rumors that the alarm was pulled intentionally, Berkson said the situation was an accident.

“That [pulled alarms] very rarely happens,” Berkson said.

Berkson said he felt the timing of the evacuation may have caused some confusion among students, though he noted the good timing of the evacuation. The school’s protocol states that students evacuate and line up on the field with their third period teacher if the emergency occurs before school, during brunch, lunch, between classes or after school.

“I think we were a little bit lucky in that we were coming back — to third period — and that third period is our go-to if something happens when we’re not in class,” Berkson said.

Principal Brent Kline helps direct the Palo Alto High School’s administration’s response during a Thursday afternoon evacuation to the lacrosse field after a faulty smoke alarm was triggered.

Junior Elena Brierley-Green said she felt confused amid the evacuation.

“It was so chaotic and disorganized,” Brierley-Green said during the incident. “I still have no idea where to go.”

Similar to Brierley-Green, many students were confused. Hundreds of students filed through a single gate in the lacrosse field. A second gate at the south end of the field was locked, creating a bottleneck. Principal Brent Kline unlocked the second gate to facilitate students’ departure from the field at the end of the evacuation. 

“That [the bottleneck] is something to talk about, for sure,” Berkson said, adding that students might be directed to go through the far entrance of the lacrosse field in future evacuations. 

Students practiced new evacuation plans, splitting classes between the football and lacrosse fields, at the beginning of the year. Despite this, the changes proved disorienting during the unexpected evacuation. 

Some students accidentally went to the football field and were unable to go to their third period teacher on the lacrosse field. Classmates had to call the missing students so the admin could account for them during attendance.