Emergency preparedness a learning experience at GHS

Saturday, January 28, 2012
Challenging Greencastle High School students to think on their feet and pool their talents in a problem-solving exercise focused on emergency preparedness, Dr. David Tate of Purdue University leads the program Thursday afternoon. Above, Tate monitors the situation while Greencastle Police Chief Tom Sutherlin (standing, right) helps guide would-be police officers through their response effort.

Preparing for college can be a lot like preparing for the worst of emergencies, Greencastle High School students were warned Thursday.

While the afternoon exercise before them focused students' attention on a mock disaster featuring a faux fire and explosion at the Olin Biological Sciences Building on the DePauw University campus, there was a scholastic lesson in progress as well.

Dr. David Tate, past chairman of the Indiana Homeland Security Commission and director of the Medical Laboratory Sciences Department at Purdue University, led the exercise in the GHS library.

Twenty students in John Garner's AP Physics class and 25 in the AP Biology class taught by Brad Kingma and Karen Swalley were divided into groups representing emergency personnel, municipal government, campus leaders and the media. It was their job to tackle the emergency situation and how its ramifications might impact individuals, traffic, the campus, the surrounding neighborhood and the community as a whole.

Tate related that responding to the ever-evolving emergency was not unlike surviving and learning to thrive in college.

After all, in both cases individuals have to react on their feet and think outside the proverbial box to anticipate problems and stay ahead of the resulting issues, all while pushing themselves to new, often unperceived heights.

"It's all about thinking," Tate assured. "There's no way to tell you what you're going to learn about yourselves in college."

An exercise like Thursday's emergency preparedness effort is designed, like many college classes, to "expand your world and expand your mind," Tate told a well-engaged group of GHS students and eight members of the Area 30 Career Center Law Enforcement class.

"If you don't expand your comfort zone," Tate reasoned, "you're never going to know what your true capabilities are. I really believe in failure."

Failure, Tate reasoned, often offers an opportunity to push yourself and learn more about what you might be capable of accomplishing either alone or in a group project like Thursday's exercise.

"When you go to college," Tate offered, "I really want you to push yourselves."

He asked the group to think of a number representing how much of their individual potential each pupil believes he or she has achieved thus far.

"I'll bet you're thinking somewhere in the 70 to 75 percent range," Tate said. "Let me tell you, it's that other 25 to 30 percent that is going to set you apart."

Using the local example of a fire and explosion at DePauw -- coupled with the presence of local professionals like Fire Chief Bill Newgent, Police Chief Tom Sutherlin and GPD Capt. Charles Inman (who teaches the Area 30 class) --- Tate sparked instant interest in the students.

As they worked through logistical problems like getting additional manpower, ambulances and fire equipment to the scene and marshaling forces around the county, Tate continually upped the ante.

"The fire's spreading," he said at one point. "Think of solutions, people, while you're deciding, the building is burning."

As the exercise progressed through the class period, Tate noted, "It's been 46 minutes now. That will be somebody's lifetime in this situation.

"A shooting ... that can happen in 30 seconds. Think about these people (the professionals) who are here helping you today, this is what they do right to help keep you safe."

Chosen for lead roles in the problem-solving exercise were Cole Pohlar as incident commander; Jimmy Shaw as fire chief; Jesse Gardner as police chief; Cody Girton as the sheriff; Nate Secrest as State Police commander; Lydia Kenworthy as the mayor; Dustin Law as the DePauw president; Kaden Faust as media spokesman; Cy Spencer as school administrator; and Colleen Weatherford as the hospital administrator.

"These kids were making some really good decisions," Tate praised.

And their real-life counterparts agreed.

"Our group did a good job thinking outside the box," said Fire Chief Newgent, for whom the exercise probably hit home the most.

Newgent was incident commander on the April 7, 2002 fire that destroyed DePauw's Rector Hall but miraculously resulted in no injuries.

Tate's appearance at GHS and a morning visit to Cloverdale High School were arranged and sponsored by the Purdue Club of Putnam County. The organization also had a dinner and a Tate-led emergency preparedness program of its own Thursday night at Autumn Glen.

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