CENTRAL FALLS — With the recent Boston Marathon bombing tragedy, much attention has been paid to the “first responders” who sprang into action to aid the injured. However, since last March and long before all the media attention, 18 Central Falls High School students were quietly meeting after school to learn how to be emergency responders, and their hard work and dedication has paid off.
On April 25, these students were inducted by the Red Cross of Rhode Island as members of the Student Emergency Response Team (SERT). “We're the first in the state as a school emergency response team,” noted Robert Scappini, a Central Falls High School history teacher who founded the program. He added that the program is “ground-breaking” because it is the first of its kind in the eastern United States to enlist students.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts were in attendance at the induction ceremony, where the students received official patches establishing them as the Central Falls High School Emergency Response Team. Participating students are Jessie Barrios, Erika Botelho, Katherine Carrillo, Pedro Cabral, Abigal Chacon, Devin Chamberland, Sabrina Gonzalez, Melanie Hernandez, Nathalia Gomez, Jose Medina, Mercedes Peters, Abigal Reyes, Angelica Ruiz, Agatha Vargas, Sebastian Zuleta, Jailene Lozano, Helaryn Hernandez and Alexis Dominguez.
Scappini said the students, who span grades 9 through 11, are all volunteers who are being trained as first responders to emergencies and disasters that may happen in the school or the community. The students have been going through basic orientation programs held at the high school since early March. They will now begin formal training, provided by the Red Cross of Rhode island, during the month of July at Rhode Island Army National Guard's Camp Fogarty.
The Central Falls SERT students will be trained in first aid, disaster management, light search and rescue, fire safety, radio communications and shelter management. According to the program outline, students will form a corps of volunteers that will assist local police and fire departments in the event of a natural or man-made emergency. Thanks to an Extended Learning Opportunity grant, the SERT has been able to purchase equipment such as hard hats, goggles, safety vests and other items for use in emergency management training.
Scappini noted that, beyond this valuable level of training, many of the students are bi-lingual and speak Spanish, Creole and Portuguese, something that could prove especially helpful to local public safety officials in the event of a disaster or emergency. This could mean anything from natural occurrences such as extreme flooding or snowstorms to medical events such as the H1N1 flu inoculation clinics. “These kids could bridge the gap between the first responders in the community,” he noted.
Scappini said he got the idea for starting a SERT after reading an article about Civilian Emergency Response Teams. Such teams, with adult volunteers, were first organized in Los Angeles, California in 1985 and are found 50 states. He put out a flyer in the school and was surprised by the number of students who were interested and began attending the weekly after-school meetings.
Assisting Scappini, a U.S. Navy veteran who is the teacher mentor for the program, are science teacher Kerri Withrow, physical education teacher Jeff Lapierre and social studies teacher Jerry Lapierre. Jason Campagnone is the Rhode Island Red Cross mentor.
“I can't tell you the enthusiasm they have shown for this,” said Scappini, who said he envisions the program's expansion next year and beyond. “These are a fantastic bunch of kids who have shown dedication and compassion to this program.” He noted that 10 of the 18 SERT members, on their own, took an on-line course offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and achieved “level 1” certification as emergency first responders.
As part of the program, Scappini said the students are designing a prototype for a portable canvas stretcher that can be folded up small enough to fit inside a backpack. This item is something that could be used during events where there are large crowds. He added that toward the end of the SERT training in September, the students will stage a “mock disaster” drill at the high school, showing what they've learned and how they would respond.
Along those lines, Scappini noted that the April 15 Boston Marathon terrorist attack was an obvious topic of discussion during recent SERT meetings. “We talked about it at length and the students did a lot of thinking about what they would do if they were put in that situation,” he said.
Particularly in the wake of unfortunate incidents such as the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. and recent bomb threats that have caused disruption at Woonsocket High School, Central Falls teacher Jerry Lapierre also noted that the SERT can be a valuable asset to the high school. He said that having students trained in these types of skills could go a long way in helping the school population remain calm during an emergency, until which time public safety officials arrive and take over.
Besides being an asset to their school and city, Scappini noted that the students involved in the SERT will earn community service hours required for graduation as well as extended learning credits. The students who complete the program will also be able to wear a special Red Cross cord on their graduation gowns next year.
At a recent SERT session, in which the students were trying on their new safety equipment in preparation for a lesson on doing a building search and rescue, several spoke about how much they like the course and the skills they are gaining.
Jessie Barrios, a junior, said she would like to pursue a career in the medical field and thought the emergency response team program seemed like a good way to gain experience. “At the end of the day, it's the same thing, helping people in need,” she said.
Agatha Vargas, also a junior, said, “I love it. It's so much fun. This program has made me want to go into nursing or something like this.”
Devin Chamberland, an 11th grader, said he currently works doing security for the city's Parks and Recreation Department and credits the program with teaching him some useful skills for dealing with the public.
For Pedro Cabral, an 11th grader who is planning to join the military, being on the SERT “can definitely help me. It's good to know what to do when something happens.”