The classrooms and hallways of Soldotna High School were dark, lit only by the occasional emergency light and the jagged, shaky beams emitting from Community Emergency Response Team trainee headlamps as teams moved quickly through the building, searching classrooms for victims of a simulated earthquake.
The building was largely silent, save for the occasional anguished scream of a volunteer victim as they simulated shaken mothers whose children had been killed — many with broken bones, head injuries and other afflictions designed to test the triage knowledge of 12 team members who worked through the disaster drill as the capstone of the community emergency response, or CERT, program.
In the scenario, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck about 45 miles from Soldotna and emergency services personnel were responding to hundreds of damage and injury reports on the Central Peninsula area; CERT members have been called to help and the Soldotna CERT team was assigned to the high school where about 250 people were gathered when the earthquake hit. The CERT team was assigned to search the building for injured and trapped people.
The task required significant logistical planning. The group broke into three groups and canvassed the school — marking each door with a series of signals indicating that the room had been searched and how many, if any, victims were inside.
The students missed a few things.
In one room, Billie Sylvester screamed so loudly her son Joseph Sylvester couldn’t continue to play dead with a straight face and the team responding missed a sign by the door indicating that the room was on fire.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Sylvester said. “I think it’s great, it’s too bad they don’t have more volunteers.”
Another team forgot to mark their doors correctly, resulting in the rooms needing to be searched again.
“Thirty hours isn’t nearly enough time to learn everything you need,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management Program Coordinator Dan Nelson.
Still, Nelson said the students did well despite the short time they’d had to learn emergency response skills.
The dozen trainees were joined by current CERT trained members who volunteered to help with the day’s event — they stayed largely hands-off however, forcing the trainees to work through the scenario without external help.
Victims scattered throughout the building had a variety of injuries, several needed to be transported by groups of trainee, often in blankets or wheeled on carts and office chairs.
The building was hot and many of the CERT trainees and volunteers were sweating profusely during the drill.
Lizz Giver, of Soldotna, stopped to grab water bottles for her team members as they stopped to figure out how to move the four victims they found in classrooms on the second floor of the building.
Giver gathered blankets and the group moved upstairs to gather the blankets.
“My friend told me about (the training) and it just seemed like a good way to be prepared, both for the community and in your personal life,” Giver said.
The petite blonde was the decisive member of her team, often reminding them of their goal, procedures and how the group should handle each situation.
Group observer Trisha Davis, a longtime Red Cross volunteer who ran the organization’s emergency shelter during the Funny River Horse Trail wildfire, said she saw merit in Giver’s ability to lead.“She has potential to be a (heck) of a good leader,” Davis said.
Davis has been a member of the Red Cross since 2001 and joined CERT when she moved to the Kenai Peninsula.
“I believe in taking care of your community,” she said. “It’s hard to get people to volunteer, everyone comes out when there’s a disaster. During the Funny River Fire … I was really impressed with Soldotna but there were people we couldn’t use because they hadn’t been trained.”
Davis said the CERT training assured that community members would be ready safely volunteer when another disaster struck the area.
As the day came to a close, Nelson prepared to end the drill when victims piling up in the staging area of the high school began to outnumber those still missing. The trainees included several high school-aged student, a first for the classes which have trained personnel in 10 Kenai Peninsula communities.
“They’re really energetic to teach,” he said.
Zion Alioto, 14, took a break from carrying victims to watch the simulated chaos unfold around him. “I wanted to help the community out if there was a disaster,” he said. “I never really expected to carry people on a blanket. It feels pretty good to go around and save people.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org