Simulated tornado scenario prepares trainees to make a real difference following disasters

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OLATHE, Kan. -- From bloody bodies to broken bones, nothing was off-limits Monday night as a group of Johnson County residents responded to the aftermath of a simulated tornado.

The pretend scenario played out at the Olathe Fire Administration building and marked the last night of training for more than a dozen people to become certified members of FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

“This trains the average citizen how to be effective and how to be efficient,” said CERT program manager, Capt. John Sanches. “So they can take care of themselves, their families, their neighbors and anybody that they don’t even know, as long as they can help them out.”

He said CERT is essentially an organized group of everyday people trained for disaster planning, preparedness and survival.

“If there is an actual disaster,” Sanches said, “the fire department, the police, the ambulance service, we’re going to be overwhelmed. So we’re going to depend on the citizens.”

For the current course, those citizens included two stay-at-home moms, a teacher, a federal technician, county waste management workers, and more.

Among the group of 18 people was Stephanie Nicholson, an aquatics instructor who said she wanted to become a better asset to her community in times of need.

“So not only do I want to make sure my family is taken care of,” she said, “but I want to make sure that my community, my friends are taken care of, as well.”

Monday’s hands-on tornado simulation capped off six weeks in the classroom –amounting to 24 hours of CERT training.

“Well what I’ve noticed,” said CERT student Eric Day, “even from some of our little scenarios, is you get tunnel vision in a hurry. Even when it’s fake, it’s not real, you still get focused on what’s immediately in front of you, and you don’t notice what’s around you. What I’m going to try to do is focus on the bigger picture as much as I can.”

Day said he knows he’s going to make mistakes, and he’s learning as he goes. But Capt. Sanches said that’s okay.

“Desire and hard work is all it takes,” Capt. Sanches said.

They’re qualities, combined with skills, that mean when real disaster hits, this group will be prepared to make a real difference.

“Considering what we learned and where everyone’s supposed to be and go, we don’t have enough people for help,” Nicholson said during the simulation. “This is definitely a program, the more people that get involved, the better it will be in a disaster situation.”

The Olathe Fire department has been offering the free program for the past 20 years, with about three sessions each year.

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