Cape Tech Evacuated After Another False Alarm

by Alan Pollock

PLEASANT LAKE – For the third time in just over three months, an armed intruder alert at Cape Tech Tuesday sent students and staff literally running for the hills. While there was no actual threat, three people were evaluated for injuries that happened during the frantic evacuation.

As of press time Tuesday, the cause of the alarm was not known. Superintendent of Schools Bob Sanborn said he does not believe the system was activated by a student.

Students reported that the armed intruder alert system sounded sometime before 9 a.m. Displays throughout the school told students to evacuate immediately and that the activation was not a drill.

“We were all panicking at the time,” junior Charlie Jepson said. Most students fled to prearranged staging areas outside school grounds, but some ran out to the westbound lane of Route 6 and were picked up by police. Ambulances were summoned to evaluate three people with potential injuries, according to emergency radio traffic; one was for a suspected sprained ankle, a second was for a person feeling lightheaded, and the third was for a faculty member with a potential heart problem. Without overcoats, many students and faculty members spent around 45 minutes outdoors in 39-degree weather, with winds that made it feel like 32 degrees.

Students were readmitted to the building at around 9:30 a.m., and took part in a virtual meeting with school administrators and police to explain what had happened. Sanborn opted to send students home for the day rather than try to resume classes.

“It’s too disruptive,” he said. “A faculty meeting took place at 10:30, and the focus is now on determining what happened.

“We don’t know how it was set off,” Sanborn said.

Last Dec. 15, a technical glitch caused the alarm to activate, and three weeks later an error programming the emergency display messages prompted another evacuation. School officials have been working intently with the contractors responsible for the alarm systems to identify the problem and prevent false alarms.

“I’m worried about the technology,” Sanborn said. “If this was [intentionally] set off, it worked perfectly. But if it went off in error...” he said, not completing the thought.

“They said twice they had fixed the alarm,” student Derek Reyes said, shaking his head. Reyes was among a number of students who walked well away from school grounds and waited in traffic to be picked up by parents.

Deputy Police Chief Kevin Considine said he’s aware of the injuries during the evacuation, and understands how they happened.

“What was supposed to happen with the building being emptied was exactly what happened,” he said. “When the alarm went off, they ran out of the school.” With that many people fleeing at one time, injuries are to be expected. “You can’t control everybody,” he said. Of particular worry were students who evacuated to the highway.

“That’s our biggest concern. The school has done all they can to try to convey to the kids, don’t go on the highway. Unfortunately, it still happens,” the chief said.

“It is a very stressful situation. We can completely understand that. I think the kids are doing what they’re trained to do, to just get away from the school,” he said.

Is there a danger of students becoming desensitized to the false alarms, and not acting appropriately should there actually be an emergency? Considine said he sees no evidence of that.

“Unfortunately, we saw the reaction from kids today,” he said. “They were very upset, and their friends see that.”

The public safety response to the emergency was swift, with police from Harwich, Brewster and Chatham rapidly converging on the school. They were joined by the Massachusetts State Police, while a team from the fire department staged nearby, ready to deploy if needed. A representative from the state fire marshal’s office also responded.

“We have protocols that, when this alarm goes off, we respond quickly,” he said. “That happened exactly like it was supposed to happen.” Throughout the process, school students and staff members were thanking first responders for being there.

The delay in getting students back indoors could not be avoided, Considine added.

“We had to secure the building and search the whole building,” he said.

Considine said the first job is to determine how the system was activated. Then, they need to “take measures to make sure that, if there was a malfunction, that it gets fixed,” he said.

This story has been updated to reflect new information.