Surprisingly, CERT’s mock disaster scenario isn’t a zombie apocalypse.
Moulaging “victims” of a simulated kitchen explosion, with Fred L. Mathews Conference Center West doubling as a restaurant, consumed a half hour.
By the time he addresses Southwestern Michigan College’s second Community Emergency Response Team graduating class of eight, Dowagiac Public Safety Director Steven Grinnewald, a bolt protruding from his forehead, looks like an extra on “The Walking Dead.”
Graduation caps 20 hours of training since Feb. 4. CERT is a nationwide program that teaches community members how to assist police, fire and EMS.
Kayla Tobias, a criminal justice major from Cassopolis, found the biggest challenge to be a less injured man who had been evacuated to the library lobby “flying back in here” to search for a friend, then refusing to accept his death.
“You naturally find yourself focusing a lot of attention on someone who clearly is not responding,” Patty Klug, Dowagiac Police Department administrative assistant and CERT coordinator, said at the debriefing. “We tend to gravitate to the most serious. At times you need to leave that person who is gone and get on to the next one who has potential to live.”
“One thing I saw this time that was very good that I’ve not seen in the past,” Klug said, “was concern about the emotional impact on other victims and trying to protect them from seeing the dead and trying to help them understand if their friend or child was okay. Comforting them is a big part.”
Det. Dan Wiggins said, “One thing I saw at the time that bugged me was the boy in the kitchen doing a great job making noise, but you won’t go to him. But after talking to you guys, you didn’t want to go in because there was a gas leak. You thought it through logically. You wanted to get him, but you couldn’t. It’s hard when a little kid’s screaming.”
“You guys did a good job slowing things down,” Wiggins continued. “You didn’t rush. The first thing which always breaks down is communication because one person thinks everybody thinks the way they do. One victim ‘escaped’ and made it back into the room. His emotions were supposed to be up and down, completely compliant and happy one minute, frustrating the next.”
Dowagiac Fire Department made available a backboard to transport the injured, but the first class which graduated last Nov. 11 had to improvise with things found around them, from turning a table into a stretcher and a chair into a lift to wrapping a victim like a papoose in a tablecloth to drag them to safety.
Wiggins said, “The one thing we can’t (replicate) in any training, whether on the police side or fire side, is true raw emotion. It may be quiet after an explosion, but realistically, there may be fire alarms and sprinkler systems going off. Overall, you did a very good job.”
Two graduates, Cayla Fargo of New York and Nicholas Fuller of Cassopolis, are studying social work. Vineesha Rathnam of Berrien Springs is the mother of an SMC student and a therapist for Family Therapy in St. Joseph.
Kim Luthringer is SMC’s lead admissions advisor. Denis Burns is campus security coordinator. Burns said a CERT Club will be organized.
Topics taught by Klug, Wiggins, Deputy Fire Chief Guy Evans and Kathy Emans, Woodlands Behavioral Healthcare Network CEO, include disaster preparedness, disaster medical, CERT organization, disaster psychology, terrorism and light search and rescue.
“Volunteering for this type of thing is one of the most important things you can do,” Grinnewald said. “You guys are now partners hand-in-hand with us. We need extra sets of hands and eyes for everything we do. You have the ability to help neighbors and friends in our community. Most importantly, you have the ability now to try to save a life. Think about situations in which you might find yourself and how you might respond.”
Kim Luthringer, Josh Cavitt, Cayla Fargo, Scott Swanson, Vineesha Rathnam, Nicholas Fuller, Kayla Tobias and Denis Burns received completion certificates, identification cards and CERT patches and pins at graduation March 25.