Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Skills learned over a weekend will last a lifetime

Students participate in emergency response training

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Susan Whitney⁄The Gazette
Walker Mill Middle School eighth-graders (from left) Alex Anderson, 14, Tonek Hancock, 14 and Harry Denby, 14, recently completed the Junior Community Response Team Training at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in College Park.
Strongly encouraged by his mother to participate in a weekend-long emergency preparedness class, Walker Mill Middle School eighth-grader Harry Denby admits he was not enthused about giving up his free time.

But Denby of Oxon Hill gained more than just student service learning hours—he also learned how to help during an emergency situation.

Denby,14, and fellow Walker Mill eighth-graders Tonek Hancock,14, of Fort Washington, and Alex Anderson,14, of Capitol Heights earned 21 student service learning hours and a certificate for completing Junior Community Emergency Response Team training Jan. 19 through Jan. 21 at the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute in College Park.

Run through the county’s Office of Homeland Security, CERT is a free volunteer program for county residents who want to learn what to do in case of a natural disaster or medical emergency in areas such as search and rescue and fire safety.

For three days, 44 students learned skills such as how to lift debris from a body, check for pulse and irregular breathing, identify if someone has a serious or non-life threatening injury and how to properly discharge a fire extinguisher.

Calvin Hawkins, the office’s Chief of Communities Affairs and Education, was one of the class instructors. Hawkins said the only difference between regular CERT and Junior CERT is that student participants receive student service learning hours to count toward high school graduation.

Students from Central High School in Capitol Heights and Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale participated in the program, as well as students from several county middle schools like Hyattsville Middle School and Beltsville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. But Hawkins said Walker Mill was the most represented school, whereas the rest of the middle schools each had one participant.

Students were given free neon vests and helmets to wear during simulations because victims are more inclined to listen to you if you are wearing an official uniform, Hancock said.

Their final exam involved a simulation where students tended to people following the aftermath of a tornado, where bodies were strewn over the place and some of the actors pretended to be senior residents looking for pets.

‘‘If they were doing something incorrectly, instructors would stop them, talk to them, show them what they were doing wrong and how to correct it, so that in a real life situation they would have a better chance of doing it correctly and not hurting anyone,” Hawkins said.

Anderson said an important rule they learned is to think with your head and not your heart during an emergency.

‘‘Never tell them they’ll be okay because you don’t know if they’ll be okay,” Hancock said. ‘‘Never say you know where someone is.”

Hawkins said he was impressed with how involved the Walker Mill students were and could tell that they read their training manuals because they asked questions about the curriculum.

‘‘They were very polite, but even though they were one of the younger people in the group, you could tell they were bound to lead because they volunteered to take leadership roles,” Hawkins said. ‘‘They volunteered as part of the different scenarios. They were not shy about learning.”

Alex Anderson’s mother, Anita Anderson, said she learned about the program from Teresa Gardner-Williams, executive director of the Prince George’s Volunteer Center, during an evening financial assistance program at Walker Mill. Anderson, a contractor for the Federal Office of Homeland Security, saw the program as an opportunity for her son to learn emergency preparedness skills and earn student service learning hours.

‘‘I was going over his book a couple nights ago and reviewing it with him,” Anita Anderson said. ‘‘They covered a lot. My daughter will attend the session they have in March. They’ll both have their certification. If anything should happen in Capitol Heights, they’re certified to help in fires or any type of situation that might come up.”

Walker Mill Principal Gorman Brown said he had never heard of the CERT program before receiving word that his school was the first in the county to have three students to complete it. Now Brown is in talks with the county’s office of homeland security to make his school a training center for other interested students by the end of this school year.

‘‘I’m extremely proud to first of all to have three young men who have taken it upon themselves for taking responsibility for maintaining a safe and orderly environment for their school,” Brown said. ‘‘I’m excited to see how this will be integrated into our schools.”

Alex Anderson said if offered the chance, he would like to do emergency medical rescue work either in ambulances or fire fighting in the future now that he has the training. But that line of work seemed too risky to Denby.

‘‘I’m a little scared [of] putting my life on the line,” Denby said.

E-mail Natalie McGill at