Pinellas Park students simulate tornado drill for final project
PINELLAS PARK -
With a backdrop of wounded students lying on the ground, two wrecked cars and a line of waiting ambulances, Brittany Galan approached the yellow tape Thursday morning to address a cluster of slightly amused media professionals.
“At 9:03 we had a tornado touch down at Pinellas Park High School,” said Galan, the designated public information officer.
There wasn’t an actual tornado, though. The made-up disaster was designed as a final project to give students in the high school’s First Responder’s Program a simulated experience in their chosen field of study.
The exercise, called “Disaster Day,” was the first of its kind at Pinellas Park High. Though it has been in the planning stages for months, it wasn’t lost on anyone that the mock tragedy came four days after a real one decimated the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, Okla., killing at least 24 people and causing billions of dollars in damage.
“A tornado is going to cause the same damage here as it did there, maybe on a little less scale,” said Jeff Detrano, 18, dressed up in his police explorer uniform, as if he were a patrolman helping his fellow students bring order to Thursday’s manufactured chaos.
The First Responder Program includes about 400 students, about 300 of whom participated in Disaster Day, said instructor Dale Koning. Fifty-two students, including Galan, are expected to graduate this year, each with emergency medical responder certification.
Students in the program designed Thursday’s exercise, which tested them on everything from putting out fires to decontaminating a site and performing search and rescue missions. Real firefighters and paramedics from throughout Pinellas County were on hand to give guidance.
Many of the tools and props used in the exercise were paid for by a $50,000 grant from the Pinellas Education Foundation that Koning received at the beginning of the year. The two twisted cars were donated by local businesses so students could learn how to extricate trapped occupants.
The story behind the simulation Thursday was that the tornado tore the roof off the gymnasium, tossed around cars and left dozens of students with a range of injuries – everything from minor cuts to a severed arm to a piece of wood stuck in the side of a sophomore.
Students are taught that saving lives is the first priority in a disaster, followed by property damage assessment and protecting the environment, said Koning. They also learn that rescue workers have to prioritize in a disaster, saving only those they can.
For instance, a handful of dummies were lying on the ground beyond the yellow tape, simulating people killed in the tornado. Students were taught to pass them by.
A few students, stuffed in oversized firefighter uniforms and helmets, learned how to spray water on the mock fire that erupted in the gymnasium after it collapsed.
Lime green traffic cones stood in for the fire during the exercise, staged on the basketball courts – because students were using the gymnasium, said Lt. Derek Raymer, of the City of Seminole Fire Rescue department.
There was also a simulated hazardous materials exercise, with students splattered with baby powder getting washed down in kiddie pools.
“The baby powder was this nuclear waste, this radioactive waste,” said Michael Musgrave, a sophomore who plays trumpet in the school band and volunteered for Thursday’s exercise. “They have to spray you off with these car wash scrubbers.”
For Musgrave, the exercise was anything but a chore, given the soaring temperatures Thursday.
“It’s hot out here, and getting sprayed down with water feels good,” he said.
Throughout, Galan gave periodic updates to the media – on the number of “fatalities,” for instance.
Toward the end of Disaster Day, a student appeared on a stretcher and was being wheeled quickly to an awaiting ambulance. What, reporters asked, was her faked scenario?
The student, part of a search-and-rescue team, had injured her knee, and it was for real, Galan said.
“That is not a drill,’’ she said.