Collaboration on preparedness drill

Preparedness was the order of the day on Tuesday when members of the local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) conducted a training exercise at the site of the old La Puerta Junior High School.

CERT trainer Dennis Smith said he picked the spot, which was closed as a middle school in 1978 and continued to be used for a number of subsequent years for adult school classes, because he “knew it would be kind of in a shambles.”

Here was the scenario being enacted: A large earthquake has rattled the Los Angeles area. With that reports some middle school students may be trapped at school, and the police occupied with other casualties of the extensive damage throughout the city, CERT volunteers descend on the scene, prepared to help any victims they might find.

Six El Roble students, members of the Interact Club that eventually feeds into Rotary, volunteered to be crisis actors for a day in order to lend a sense of realism to the drill. After being assigned a card describing their post-quake condition, the students headed to a makeup station manned by 3 students from the Claremont High School Theater Department.

The teens—volunteering their service as a small way to thank the community for their support of the newly-renovated CHS theater—then proceeded to use paint and pigments to mimic the look of burns, cuts and abrasions.

As CHS thespian Scotty Jacobson, 18, and his crew applied makeup to 7th grader Alex Moneith, she explained her hypothetical condition to bystanders.

“I have massive facial injuries, which is not that different from every day,” Alex laughed.

The most gruesome of the wounds was a bone-protruding fracture on the upper arm of 8th grader Sarah Gale, created by a latex prosthetic edged with lots of fake blood.

“I feel like Kevin Ware,” she joked in a grim reference to the University of Louisville basketball player who incurred a horrific leg fracture at a game on Monday night. 

Once transformed, the youths were led to their designated places. Sarah was instructed to lay adjacent to a felled file cabinet. In another room, 8th grader Carter Abbot was shown a spot where he was to lie, covered with second-degree burns and no longer breathing. In the same room, Alex was asked to take a place near a downed power wire.

“We have to make the assumption that it’s dangerous and stay, at minimum, 30 feet away,” Mr. Smith said. “When you see a victim there, it’s very hard, emotionally, not to go to them. But it’s safety first: Don’t put yourself in danger, don’t put your partner in danger.”

“Nice to know you care,” Alex quipped.

The kids had fun exploring the vacant building which, other than missing and mildewing ceiling tiles and jumbled furniture, was surprisingly in tact. Water came out of the drinking fountain and the electricity was working, providing a real-life example of the saying, “The lights are on but nobody’s home.” With its pre-cordless phones, ancient Apple computers with 13-inch screens and an electric typewriter, the site—which CUSD has declared surplus in preparation for sale—serves as a time capsule.

Once Claremont police notified the CERT members to be trained about the “emergency” via rotary call, the lights were flipped off and the students hit their marks. They were surprisingly well behaved, not making a peep during the more than 30 minutes they lay in the mildew-scented dark, waiting for help.

When the CERT trainees arrived on the scene, they canvassed the building, located the victims, radioed for help and stretchers as needed and then brought the teens out of the building. Some victims, like Sarah, were able to hobble out of the building with some help while others required stretchers.

Part of the parking lot had been turned into a makeshift triage center. The CERT emergency response truck, packed with medical and food supplies, was stationed there and 2 generators were powered up to provide electricity to the truck as well as for auxiliary lights.

Three tarps were spread on the ground, one for “the walking wounded,” who require care but are not in serious danger, another for those who can stand to wait a bit before treatment and a third for those who require immediate attention. A bit ominously, a black tarp spread some distance away was prepared to serve as a makeshift morgue in case of any deaths.

And this faux-catastrophe indeed turned lethal. Having “died” on the scene, Carter was left on the premises. The other fatality was a CERT member who got too close to the downed power line and was “electrocuted.”

While the proficiency of the rescuers is still a work in progress, the students realized one thing while lying in a darkened building, imagining they were seriously hurt. In case of such a scenario, it would be infinitely comforting to hear the voice of a caring volunteer saying, “This is CERT. Is anybody in here?”

CERT members like Mr. Smith, who aided victims of the 2009 San Diego Station Fire , say helping the community prepare for emergencies is their civic duty.

“We all know it’s not a matter of if but when a big emergency—a major earthquake or fire—will happen,” Mr. Smith said.

—Sarah Torribio


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