Principal charged with failing to evacuate school after fire call - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Principal charged with failing to evacuate school after fire call

Associated Press Writer

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - Fire officials charged a high school principal with failing to pull an alarm to evacuate students and faculty after someone at the school called 911 and reported smoke in the building Wednesday.

An assistant fire marshal who happened to be in the area of Hixson High School and arrived with the first group of firefighters who responded about 10:30 a.m. pulled the alarm, Chattanooga Fire Marshal Craig Haney said.

"There was a strong smell of smoke but nothing visible," Haney said. "Obviously something was burning."

Haney said the assistant fire marshal, Lt. Shellie Pastusic, confirmed there was smoke on the second floor near the library when she arrived.

Pastusic asked the principal, Christine Couch, why the school had not been evacuated and then pulled an alarm herself.

A Fire Department statement said a school employee, who was not identified by officials, mentioned that students were taking a standardized aptitude test.

Fire officials would not say if that comment was given as a reason for why the alarm was not sounded. "Our concern is with that large number of children," Haney said.

"You always have children who have asthma and allergies. By the time it (fire) would have been found it could have introduced heavier smoke. Smoke is the number one killer and not the flames. Also, all of a sudden if kids see a lot of smoke in the building, they are going to panic."

The school was evacuated briefly before firefighters failed to find anything burning. About noon they left school maintenance workers checking light ballasts on the second floor to locate the source of the smoke, officials said.

"The firefighters on the scene determined there was no fire when they left," Haney said.

Haney said Couch was cited on a misdemeanor charge of "failure to implement the appropriate emergency plan or procedure."

A city court hearing was set for Oct. 29. Couch could not be reached for comment and a school secretary referred questions to Hamilton County education officials, who said in a statement Couch noted an unusual smell but in the absence of any smoke she asked the first firefighters who arrived to let her know if she should evacuate the school.

The statement said Pastusic was apparently not aware of that conversation and described the situation as a "misunderstanding."

Haney said he could not recall a similar situation of a school reporting a fire but not evacuating. He said the principal was "very cooperative" when informed she was being charged.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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