Zoe Berg, Senior Photographer

Students from at least three New Haven public schools were evacuated on Friday morning during the earthquake tremor.

At around 10:20 a.m. on Friday, buildings across New Haven shook after a 4.8 magnitude earthquake hit northern New Jersey. During the brief tremor, an assistant superintendent directed a few New Haven schools to evacuate, according to New Haven Public Schools spokesperson Justin Harmon. School officials pulled fire alarms to execute the evacuations, prompting firefighters to report to the scene. Daniel Coughlin, the New Haven Fire Department’s assistant chief of operations, said that the department received fire alarm notices from Ross Woodward Magnet School, Clinton Avenue School and John C. Daniels School.

On Friday, outgoing emergency management director Rick Fontana told the News that he had heard of six New Haven schools that evacuated. Harmon, who declined to name the assistant superintendent who gave the directive, said that “several” schools were evacuated but did not confirm which ones. 

“This was a very unusual circumstance,” Harmon said. “I think the reality of an earthquake led to some responses that were well-intentioned but suboptimal.”

Shortly after the schools evacuated to their pre-designated evacuation locations, they received guidance from the city’s Department of Emergency Management to shelter in place. The schools then returned to their buildings “in a matter of minutes,” Harmon said.

New Haven’s chief administrative officer Regina Rush-Kittle, who directs the Department of Emergency Management, did not respond to requests for comment.

Fontana, West Haven’s emergency management director who previously worked as New Haven’s emergency management director for over a decade, said that the correct emergency management protocol for Friday’s earthquake was to stay inside, as buildings provide a level of protection.

“The evacuation was a direction given in an effort to respond quickly to a situation that was not fully understood at the time,” Harmon said. “The better instruction, as we were told, was to have people shelter in place, so we rectified it.”

While NHPS parents were notified of the city’s shelter-in-place guidance, Harmon said that parents at the schools that evacuated were not notified that their children had left the buildings.

Harmon said that specific school administrations will be holding discussions and debriefings to make sure all school officials are up to date on proper emergency protocols. He emphasized that officials setting off the fire alarm to announce the evacuation when there was no fire was “exactly the wrong thing to do” because it sent a misleading signal to the emergency management department.

“Pulling fire alarms is not the way to have a drill or evacuate a building in a situation that does not present a fire,” Harmon said.

According to Coughlin, there was a citywide increase in fire alarms being activated during the earthquake. While some, like the ones in the schools, could have been pulled in the confusion of an emergency, Coughlin believes that some could be accidental, as weather emergencies can “jostle” the system.

Because of the alarm spike, the fire department responded to each school’s call with one vehicle and four firefighters — a single-engine response. Coughlin estimated that it would have taken at most 20 minutes for the firefighters to assess the scene, reset the alarm system and allow the schools to reoccupy their buildings.

Rush-Kittle has served as New Haven’s emergency management director since Fontana stepped down in January, while the city searches for a replacement. According to Coughlin, Rush-Kittle did not deem it necessary to activate New Haven’s emergency operations center to respond to Friday’s tremor.

Coughlin said that emergency department meetings since Friday have not focused on the school evacuations. He commended the school leaders on their quick response, despite the confusion. 

“It’s great if they did what they were supposed to do and it worked,” Coughlin said. “Every individual emergency is different, so whatever the school comes up with for their emergency plan is their emergency plan.”

He clarified that the city’s emergency departments do not dictate individual schools’ emergency plans.

Coughlin said that no injuries or serious structural damage from the earthquake have been reported in New Haven.

As towns across the state reacted to the tremor, New Haven schools were not the only ones to consider evacuation. Hours after the earthquake, a Greenwich middle school evacuated students to a nearby high school after an inspection of the school’s facilities revealed concerning new cracks.

NHPS’s executive team includes four assistant superintendents.

Ariela Lopez covers City Hall and City Politics. Originally from New York City, she is a first-year in Branford College.