Kean teens finish emergency response course


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ST. THOMAS ­- "A 7.8 earthquake struck the Virgin Islands this afternoon at 1300 hours. St. Thomas has been severely impacted. A large number of government buildings have collapsed. Also, many churches are demolished, and screams of 'Oh, God, help us!' are heard from under the rubble at your school. Roadways are blocked, hampering response, and there is no landline or cellular communication."

That was the message given to 42 Ivanna Eudora Kean High School students Sunday afternoon as they prepared to take their final test of a training course designed to teach them skills to deal with disasters as first-responders.

The students will graduate today from the 30-hour training course, called TEEN CERT (Community Emergency Response Team).

The course taught them how to render medical aid, perform CPR, use a fire extinguisher, form chains of command and set up a triage unit. It also taught them how to effectively communicate with the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency, how to properly record incidents and how stay safe themselves while conducting rescue missions.

VITEMA instructors watched the students set up a command center and respond to 19 different reports issuing from the imagined earthquake, including fires, people trapped within collapsed buildings, missing elderly people and an approaching tsunami at Red Hook.

An "incident commander" dispatched orders to fire, search-and-rescue and medical teams while "victims" clutched fake wounds and cried out in a darkened classroom with chairs and desk in a disarray meant to simulate the upheaval of an earthquake.

The training is offered by VITEMA to junior high and high schools throughout the territory. It is part of an initiative by Homeland Security to prepare more residents to take on the role of first-responders. The funding comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to TEEN CERT lead instructor and St. Croix Rescue Chief Gregory Richards.

Should a disaster strike, the qualified students will form an emergency response team for Kean. For that reason, Principal Sharon McCollum chose to offer the training to ninth- and tenth-graders only.

"We teach them how to deal with injuries if they did not have fancy medical kits using common household items," Richards said. "We teach them how to use Pampers or sanitary napkins as bandages. We also teach them about water purification using Clorox or boiling the water or water purification tablets."

After the drills, the incident commander and the team leaders took part in a simulated press conference about the impact of the earthquake, answering questions about their response efforts and the number of dead and wounded.

Sherkquan Henry, a 14-year-old ninth-grader at Kean, said one of most valuable lessons she learned from the program was the importance of maintaining personal safety while trying to rescue others.

"They shared with us true stories of when rescuers had gone to help and ended up dying," she said.

Sherkquan said she would like to become an EMT or a medical professional. In the meantime, she feels confident that she could use the skills she learned taking TEEN CERT to help others in an emergency.

"With the recent disasters that have gone in the world, I thought it would be a good idea to have more people prepared so that in the event something happens we would have less victims, more survivors," Sherkquan said.

Richards said the course has been taught at Elena Christian Junior High School and the Seventh-day Adventist School on St. Croix, but the Kean class was the largest the program has had so far.

Extra materials had to be ordered because so many students wanted to take the course, which was conducted during the course of four five-hour sessions during school days since March 5.

On Sunday, Richards and the instructors occasionally struggled to get the students to take the drills seriously and to hustle from one drill to another.

Richards said that within the next two weeks the students will tour the emergency command center at VITEMA and the morgue at Schneider Hospital so that "they can get a sense of the reality of what death is like."

According to Richards, FEMA has done studies on boosting emergency preparedness in communities and found that teenagers are useful not just as first-responders but as educators who can share the knowledge and skills with their parents at home.

"We use this almost like a vector to spread the word," Richards said. "They can take some responsibility for the preparedness of their families."

- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email anorris@dailynews.vi.

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