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School Offers Emergency-Preparedness Class

Students Get Ready For Disaster

Ventura County Star
By Anna Bakalis

April 19, 2006

Disaster has struck. People are injured, cell phone networks are down and the government's emergency agency is unresponsive for days.

Given recent events like Hurricane Katrina, it's a scenario that has resonated with communities nationwide. Now, Moorpark High School is doing its part to help make the area more self-sufficient if disaster hits.

Beginning this fall, more than 60 students will be part of the nation's first disaster-preparedness class with training in radio communication.

RADIO (Radio Amateurs and Disaster Operations) is a yearlong class, at the end of which students will be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid and student emergency response training (SERT). They will also earn an amateur radio license.

When disaster hits, the RADIO graduates would be able to use the high school essentially as a command center. They would be outfitted with Red Cross identification and use ham radios to communicate with various fire, police and Red Cross personnel. And off campus, students would shadow the same agencies, utilizing their emergency training. They would also communicate with emergency personnel using amateur radio frequencies set aside for them.

"I think this is a cutting-edge program," said Capt. Ted Smith of the Ventura County Fire Department, which works with communities to prepare and respond to disasters. "Communication is vital to saving lives. Because of the vast complexity or size of a natural disaster, getting these students and neighbors to unite and form teams to take care of each other is vital."

Moorpark is the first school to complete emergency training with radio communications such as National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS), according to Mark Spencer, coordinator of the Education and Technology Program for the American Radio Relay League, a Connecticut-based international organization of amateur radio operators.

The two fall RADIO classes are full and the school might offer another.

"It speaks volumes," Spencer said. "It shows that these teens want to help. This training gives them a chance to actively work with their community in a meaningful way."

Two teachers are spearheading the new class. Tom Baker is a math and meteorology teacher who advises the Amateur Radio Club. He was recently asked by the league if he would speak before Congress as part of a league program to coordinate teaching emergency communication using resources at the local level. Baker will be working with Guy Arnoff, a history teacher, who will coordinate emergency-preparedness training, which will bring outside emergency agencies to campus for training and certification.

"The goal is to have every student walk out as an emergency-response ambassador," Baker said. "These students will be able to interact with any agency on a volunteer basis. They will have good communication skills and be excellent problem-solvers."

Baker said the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks have resonated with his students. The high school completed its first Emergency Medical Services and SERT training class this past year, and 28 students graduated. Moorpark is the only high school in Ventura County that has offered the class, Smith said.

"We're looking to them as a model," Smith said. "Other schools are expressing interest in the SERT program."

The new RADIO elective will be offered one hour a day, five days a week for the school year.

"It's really a good opportunity. It's like learning a trade," said Alex Garcia, 15, a sophomore who has signed up for the class. "I think it's really neat. Not a lot of people get to have this training, especially teens."

The idea for the class began when Mayor Patrick Hunter visited Arnoff's history class last year and gave a state of the city address. Afterward, the two were talking about emergency preparedness and how teens would benefit from helping others deal with a disaster. Hunter is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"After a significant disaster, who better to respond to young victims of the disaster if not another teen?" Hunter said. "It's exciting to see a desire on the part of the kids to get this training that lasts a lifetime."

The training will also include search-and-rescue training, peer mediation for an on-campus situation and job shadowing opportunities for the emergency agencies involved with the on-campus training.

The Moorpark Unified School District approved the course a few weeks ago. Last week, a meeting was held with instructors, students, school officials and emergency-response personnel. Baker said the curriculum for the class is almost finished.

In times of disaster, cell phones have proven to be fallible, but ham radio always works to communicate with other emergency personnel, Spencer said.

"In every major emergency situation I've been involved in, the first thing that goes down is cellular phones," he said.

Morse code will also be taught if students want to learn, although it's not a part of the curriculum, Baker said.

The equipment needed for the radio portion of the class is being funded in part by a grant from the league. Baker said he has sent dozens of letters asking for support from businesses in Ventura County to help defray the lab costs. Each student would pay a $25 fee for equipment and books.

"We have this trained group of high school kids that can go out and provide stability in many situations. The connection is immediate," Hunter said.

Moorpark High School principal Kirk Miyashiro installs a ham radio beam antenna atop the school's F building on Tuesday. It will be used to help teach a new class called "Radio Amateurs and Disaster Operations," in which kids will learn about emergency response. ©Eric Parsons/Star staff. Moorpark 4/11/06.

Moorpark High School Principal Kirk Miyashiro, left, helps Tom Baker, a math and science teacher, assemble a ham radio antenna. The equipment will be used for a new RADIO class. ©Eric Parsons/Star staff. Moorpark 4/11/06.