HOUSTON - This back-to-school season a number of parents say safety is their biggest concern. So I caught up with one of Harris County’s top emergency leaders to find out what’s being done to protect children this upcoming school year.
Safety starts with ensuring the school building is as protected as possible and that’s the job of the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, to not only inspect the structures but also verify emergency action plans are in place, such as making sure each school has an active shooter plan of action.
Even as school hallways await the return of students and staff, they haven’t been completely empty.
David Charanza, an Inspector with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, has been in schools this summer working to make sure they'll be safe for students.
"We check the doors to make sure they function properly, but we also make sure they lock," Charanza explains.
A locking door can be important to keep a school shooter out, which is why many schools now have a two-door entry system and are equipped with what’s called panic hardware.
"So when you push the latch from the inside the door opens freely, but on the outside, if you pull on the handle it doesn’t release. It’s a one-way door. That provides safety for the kids," says Charanza.
"All of our goals are the same," adds Laurie Christensen who is also the Harris County Fire Marshal, an agency responsible for far more than fire. "I have two grandchildren. I’ve got one going to pre-K and one going to college, and I’m worried too."
"It’s also part of the active shooter training and the alert training. We have numerous staff members who are trained in that because we as a law enforcement agency and a fire service agency we work with both partners," Christensen adds.
She says the biggest thing her office learned from the Uvalde school shooting is "how important communication is" which is why Fire Marshal Christensen says here in Harris County we have Unified Command.
"It’s when we come together, it could be under a tent. It can be in a vehicle. It can be in a large command van but Unified Command is when we all come together and we’re all talking and ensuring that we’re all on the same page," Christensen explains and that, she says, will help avoid a situation like we saw in Uvalde where officers seemed to stand around not knowing who was in charge or what the plan was.
"We talk about previous school shootings and you look back at all of them and it’s always about communication and Unified Command," explains the Fire Marshal.
Christensen suggests talking to school staff at your child’s school and asking if they’ve had a recent fire and life safety inspection if they have an emergency action plan in place, as well as an active shooter plan.
She’s also reminding us to let our kids know they are part of the safety team and should tell an adult if they see or hear something odd, suspicious or unusual at school.