Just before the start of school, the Hinsdale and Peru fire departments partnered to present a pilot fire awareness and safety camp for kids in August.
"We just wanted to expose to the kids what firemen do," said Hinsdale Fire Lt. Steve Suriner. "We also stressed safety over the stretch of two days."
Learning about safety is just as much a part of the back-to-school routine as is studying, homework and wellness.
In Berkshire County, schools and outside agencies, like bus and ambulance companies and police and fire departments, all work together to help keep kids and families informed year-round.
"By law, we're required to have a fire drill during the first week of school, just in case something happens during that first week so kids and staff know what to do," said Debbie White, principal of Kittredge Elementary School in Hinsdale.
The school had its first fire drill last week, and all schools in the state are required to facilitate four fire safety and evacuation drills each school year.
Last year, Kittredge and other schools in the Central Berkshire Regional School District worked with local and state officials to run a lockdown drill and also a severe weather drill, during which students and staff evacuated from classrooms into the schools basement, away from windows.
White said school safety was thrust into the forefront of people's minds last December in the wake of the school shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"It was really difficult after Dec. 14 last year," said White. "After that, one of my teachers went over what to do with students because she had a closet in her room big enough to fit a whole class. We got a call that night from one parent who said their child told them they went to the back of the closet so they wouldn't be the first one shot."
White said the key to effectively talking with students about safety is to carefully explain the process of preparation in a positive manner.
"When [a school tragedy] occurs, our gut reaction is to do more drills when actually it can cause more anxiety," said White, who said she canceled drills scheduled back in January to help reduce the associations of the Connecticut shooting and fears at Kittredge.
The principal said that typically the time and date of the year's first fire drill is announced to students and staff so as not to scare them by catching them too off-guard. The dates of subsequent drills are announced, but the time of day is withheld to train students and staff to also be alert.
"It's a balance between having them prepared and not having them panic. If something happens, we have to take it seriously. There are reasons why we have to be safe," White said.
At least twice a year, schools also work with bus companies to teach students proper school bus evacuation drills from both the front and back entrances of the bus.
Todd Boulanger is safety coordinator for the Dufour Tours bus company based in Hinsdale, which serves multiple school districts in Berkshire County as well as in Bennington, Vt.
He said the company will begin doing fall bus evacuation drills in about a month to teach students how to leave from the rear of the bus.
"There are always a few kids who are overly excited to jump off the back of the bus, but the proper way is to sit and scoot," said Boulanger. " Basically, we're trying to teach them how to get off the bus in the orderly way."
For each bus on a route, a few students are designated as safety leaders to help students exit the bus and walk the mandated 100-foot distance to safety. These students are also taught to know to location of the vehicle's fire extinguisher and how to use the bus radio and make a dispatch for help, should a driver become incapacitated. The students are taught to identify the number of the bus, how to describe the location of the bus and how to ask for help, in case of emergency.
Various schools and communities also may offer programs during which students and safety officials can interact.
For the past several years, the Lanesborough Fire Department has run a summer fire camp that teaches kids everything from how to call 9-1-1 to how their family can put together a home evacuation plan. The camp also lets kids have a real-life taste of firefighting and operating hoses under a controlled, supervised scenario.
This year, the Lanesborough Fire Department lent some of its equipment and materials to help the Hinsdale and Peru departments run their first camp.
"We also had a firefighter dress in turnout gear and crawl around so that kids know if they ever saw that person coming toward them in a fire situation they know it's not a bad guy, even though it looks like Darth Vader coming at you," said Hinsdale Fire Lt. Suriner. He said the large fire helmets and oxygen tanks can make a firefighter look threatening to kids.
For kids who are interested in learning more about fire, rescue, EMT and law enforcement trades, Berkshire County has a few programs to offer an insider's view and even some training. For example, there's the long-running Explorers program in Dalton, which is designed for 13- to 21-year-olds interested in the field of law enforcement. Village Ambulance Service in Williamstown offers a similar Explorers program for Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Interested families should contact their local police, fire or ambulance service department to learn more about what is offered.
To reach Jenn Smith:
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