Teens prep for disaster

Youth-focused emergency response training is getting teens hooked on helping

Tai Beck (from right), Kayla McCarthy and Jet Cosmo pose in the Paia Youth & Cultural Center on Sunday, two days after officially completing the Community Emergency Response Team program for teens. Hawaii is one of eight states piloting the program, which teaches disaster preparedness skills to youths. The goal is to train 125 youth across the state, including 75 in Maui County. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

The Paia Youth & Cultural Center was full of wailing, injured kids. A broken leg here, a severed hand there, and even someone going into labor.

But the eight teenagers dressed in hard hats and reflective vests didn’t panic. They fashioned a splint for the leg, carried the wounded out on blankets and successfully delivered the baby — all part of a fictitious scenario that they’d been trained to respond to as a Community Emergency Response Team.

“How calm the team is — that’s what impressed me the most,” said Loren Lapow, who coordinated the emergency response program at the youth center. “They knew not to run in and freak out and go every which way. They had a team leader, they know how to triage, they know how to slow it down and treat one thing methodically after the other.”

On Friday, the center graduated its first class of emergency response-trained teens. Hawaii is one of eight states piloting the youth-focused Community Emergency Response Team program. It offers teens disaster preparedness courses, useful skills in a state that’s seen plenty of hurricane and tsunami warnings — and, most recently, a false incoming missile alert.

Over the course of 10 weeks, volunteer trainers from the fire department, the college and the county taught teens skills such as basic first aid and CPR, fire suppression, disaster psychology and “cribbing,” or safely extricating people trapped under fallen debris. The teens also had to create six emergency preparedness plans for friends and family, based on Maui County’s emergency preparedness workbook.

Baldwin High School freshman Desmond Kekani, 15, trains with a fire extinguisher at the Paia Youth & Cultural Center with help from the Maui County Fire Prevention Bureau. Photo courtesy of Loren Lapow

The program was inspired by the Mississippi Youth Preparedness Initiative, a youth version of the federally sanctioned adult CERT programs that teach community members practical skills in times of disaster.

Nancy Ooki, director of the 4-H program at the University of Hawaii Maui College, adapted the program for Hawaii last year. Ooki said the goal is to train 125 youths statewide, including 75 within Maui County. In addition to Paia, programs have popped up in Wailuku and Lahaina, with another coming to Kihei in March. Paia’s program is unique in that in was paired with Lapow’s Maui Hero Project, which uses the adventures of the Native Hawaiian hero Maui to teach cultural and survival lessons.

For Kayla McCarthy, an 18-year-old senior at King Kekaulike High School, the emergency response program was the perfect step toward her goal of becoming a firefighter. A junior lifeguard and the daughter of an ICU nurse, McCarthy has watched her mom come to the occasional stranger’s aid.

“Knowing how mentally strong she is, it really influenced me, really wanted to make me understand that reality so I gain a little bit more of a connection with her and help her out as well,” McCarthy said.

Tai Beck, a 13-year-old 8th-grader at Hawaii Technology Academy, originally came to the program because he heard that paintball was involved.

The teens in the CERT program learned how to administer first aid under fire during an active-shooter scenario at the paintball facility in Lahaina. Photo courtesy of Loren Lapow

“And then after that, I started getting actually interested, and I got to use some of the stuff I learned in junior lifeguarding,” said Beck, who took on the role of team leader during a staged rescue of his mom, also a lifeguard.

Classroom learning was coupled with hands-on activities, including an early-morning search-and-rescue operation during a camping trip, an active-shooter situation on a paintball field and a stranded-hiker scenario at Twin Falls in Haiku. Lapow said the students were passionate and took everything seriously.

“That’s a real scenario for some of these kids because they go to some of these places,” Lapow said. “They hike trails to go surf or to go check out waterfalls. They go hunt and fish, and they get stranded. Anything can happen. Do they have the skills, the foresight, the situational awareness and the technical awareness to get themselves out of a jam?”

Aside from bandaging wounds, the teens gained another important skill — a sense of internal calm. Beck, McCarthy and 15-year-old Jet Cosmo said the program changed their mentality in emergency scenarios.

Cosmo, a freshman at King Kekaulike, realized during a recent trip to Hana just how much he’d learned. He was on an all-terrain vehicle tour with his family when the ATV ahead of them crashed and rolled over the two riders. Instead of panicking at the sight of a man’s bloodied hand, Cosmo automatically started assessing the situation. Was it safe to approach? Was the ATV leaking gas? How would he bandage the wound? Fortunately, his aunt is a nurse and was able to help the man.

Cosmo said that learning lifesaving skills in a calm setting with his peers helps real-life emergencies seem less traumatic.

“Since we understand what it looks like if someone were to fall over and start going into cardiac arrest, we wouldn’t have to negatively deal with that shock of ‘Oh my God, somebody’s about to die,’ “ Cosmo said. “We could immediately jump into the process of giving life.”

For McCarthy, the program helped solidify her passion.

“It helped us grow. It helped us connect,” McCarthy said. “Just having that mentality of support with each other and getting through things. . . . It makes me want to go out and do some more.”

The kids know they’re not likely to be called in for emergencies, Lapow said. But if disaster strikes, they’ll be ready. Lapow pointed to the Oct. 1 mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas, when basic first aid could have saved many lives.

“It’s really the compassion and that ability to see other people suffering and handle that that I think gives them their greatest skill,” he said.

Lapow also wants to see the program expand to schools and hopes that through the youths, families will become more prepared for disasters.

Ooki added that she is looking for more teens to join in the spring. The program is open to youths ages 13 to 19. For more information, search “My PI Hawaii” on Facebook or contact Ooki at 244-3242 or ooki@hawaii.edu.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.