For many career and technical education (CTE) programs, natural disasters provide real-world learning opportunities. During disaster recovery, students enrolled in CTE programs such as carpentry, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical may learn how new techniques and technology can prevent future infrastructure losses, and how improved building codes enhance community protection. CTE construction trades offer a clear path to volunteerism and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters.
CTE first responder programs such as criminal justice, fire science, and emergency medicine — trade areas primarily tasked to respond after a disaster occurs — are typically unable to assist during a disaster response for safety reasons. Instead, they learn by observing from the sidelines. But what if there was a way for CTE to contribute with more than property recovery? What if there was a way for CTE students to help with life-saving response efforts?
How can these CTE programs safely assist during disaster response?
A first-of-its-kind Criminal Justice and Protective Services (CJPS) CTE program in Connecticut allows students to gain real-time disaster response experiences.
What might our world will look like in 30, 40 or 50 years? What demands might be placed on our society? Sadly, there is significant evidence that rising sea levels, increasingly severe weather, and growing population densities will lead to disasters much worse than those of the past. This is coupled with an aging network of disaster responders, many of whom began their careers after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and are moving toward retirement.
CTE is in the perfect position to train the future generation of disaster-response workers — a rapidly emerging career field — while also helping with disaster response in real-time. Vinal Technical High School’s CJPS program, part of the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, is already doing it.
A simple curriculum tweak
Technical skills related to emergency management, specifically on-scene incident command, are foundational for CTE first responder programs. We found that by enhancing this part of the curriculum, students could assist remotely with real-world disaster response efforts.
Through the development of a first-in-the-nation emergency operations center (EOC) at the high school level, Vinal Tech students provide federal response teams with daily open-source intelligence briefings when deployed for disasters. This may sound farfetched, but the model was proven in 2020 when students supported me and my disaster medical assistance team (DMAT) while deployed to the first cruise ship in United States territory identified with a COVID-19 outbreak.
The students’ work during this deployment was so impressive and valuable to deployed responders that the students earned federal-level recognition from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Further, they continued to assist my team during subsequent pandemic response missions around the country.
Leverage the power of CTE students on the internet.
Data and intelligence collection practices have changed significantly in the last 20 years with advances in technology. Information gathering that used to require rooms full of professionals on telephones can now be done by a few students on their devices. And in some cases, these students perform better than their less-computer-savvy professional counterparts.
Power outage statuses and flight tracking, weather radar, flood monitoring stations, and even live video feeds can be found with the click of a mouse. This type of information is now updated online before being disseminated by word of mouth. In fact, in many instances, people post pictures of disaster damage online before reaching out for assistance.
This is where CTE students can help. In the wake of a disaster, first responders stay busy securing locations, setting up temporary hospitals and treating patients. They don’t always have time to search the vast resources of the internet. Secondary CTE programs can make a real difference in the future of disaster response. Vinal Technical High School’s CJPS program essentially doubled the size of my disaster medical response team, allowing us all to focus on saving more patient lives.
An open model for disaster response education
We began practicing portions of our curriculum with made-up disaster scenarios. And we experimented with what information might be useful for “boots-on-the-ground” responders. For example, students tracked a lightning storm as it approached a disaster site. We initially envisioned my DMAT deployments as “shadow” opportunities for students to use their classroom EOC. But when my first deployment came, we realized that the students’ work was legitimately valuable to the response effort.
Before my DMAT landed in California for the cruise ship response, we received comprehensive briefing packets from the student led EOC containing intelligence critical to our mission. The first packet was 26 pages long and included everything from ship floor plans and local weather forecasts to local radio frequency lists and medical center bed counts — and all with source links — something team command staff typically spends the first few hours to days compiling!
The students improved their product every day. And it was a huge morale boost to my team knowing we were actively in the thoughts of — and being supported by — our home community. When school was closed due to COVID-19, CJPS students continued their work without the assistance of instructors to ensure delivery of these vital briefings.
The students went on to assist my team a second time when deployed to Wyoming. And, again, they earned great praise from responders for their work while making valuable connections and gaining real-world CTE experience. They even surprised us by collaborating with a local restaurant to organize a Thanksgiving dinner!
Imagine how much stronger our nation’s disaster response framework could be as we head into an unknown future if every response team was supported in this manner by their local CTE program. That is our motivation for making this an open model for any program to use. The steps to get started are simple:
- Add an EOC simulation to your program’s emergency management portion of the curriculum using our model and templates.
- Connect with a local disaster response team; either Federal or non-profit that will be responding to a disaster outside of your local area.
Visit our website to find links, templates and examples of student work. Please use these resources to get your program started and build upon them. We hope that by building a network of these programs nationwide we can aid in response efforts, better prepare students for these careers, and help your family when they need it.
David Cruickshank started his career as an EMT responding to 9/11 and has since responded to major disasters throughout the United States and Puerto Rico as part of the National Disaster Medical System. He retired several years ago from a diverse career in law enforcement to develop and lead the program discussed in this essay as a CTE instructor.