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Armed with pen and pad to learn safety, new school-based emergency response training preps N.J. staff

HILLSBOROUGH, N.J. In a classroom filled with inspirational posters and plastic containers of crayons, the students kept their three-ring binders open and followed the instructor.

“This presentation is not designed to make you terrorism experts,” said Hillsborough police Officer James Maguire IV, the township’s Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator.

“I’ve incorporated some videos in here,” he said, trying to teach them how to keep their eyes peeled for signs of trouble. They “might have a situation like we had in the last couple of weeks, where it’s a bomb scare. You can recognize that it’s something out of the ordinary.”

This was not a room full of second-graders. The adults, most of them clad in jeans and sneakers, were teachers, staff members and the principal – who had on a tie.

All of them are on staff at Woods Road School, where the township Office of Emergency Management has launched its first school-based Community Emergency Response Team.

“Our goal is to eventually have a CERT team in every one of the nine schools in the district,” Maguire said, before administering one of the last training sessions at the elementary school.

In the background, Chief David Gwin of the Hillsborough Rescue Squad recapped some of the lessons learned during nearly 30 hours of training. Topics ranged from terrorism to CPR and the use of an automated external defibrillator.

The township already has a volunteer CERT team, local residents who respond to natural disasters, such as the April 15 nor’easter, and other emergencies. The idea of a school-based team surfaced in the fall, when emergency management officials pitched the idea, said Scott Rocco, principal.

“I figured maybe we would get 12 or 14 people,” Rocco said. They got 32 out of 85 staff members. “It’s nice to be able to work with the people who are going to come in if you have an actual emergency.”

“We were actually very pleasantly surprised with the turnout,” Maguire said.

While the training wasn’t sparked by a specific event in Hillsborough schools, Maguire referenced the bomb scares that caused emergency lockdowns at the high school in recent weeks during his segment on terrorism.

The CERT concept dates from 1985, when the Los Angeles Fire Department recognized basic training in disaster survival and rescue skills would help citizens support their neighbors until first responders arrived, according to the New Jersey State Police Web site. In 2002, President Bush started the Citizens Corps Program to organize volunteer efforts. CERT is part of that program.

As of March 2006, New Jersey led the nation with 228 teams and more than 6,500 volunteers, said Sgt. Jeanne Hengemuhle, a State Police spokeswoman.

The Woods Road School volunteers used their own time for training. It wasn’t always pretty.

Some of them squirmed during the last session as Gwin showed images of broken limbs, a bone protruding through one of them.

“I’ve talked about how you can make splints,” he said, clicking through the presentation. Soon, he moved on to nose bleeds.

“If somebody has a nosebleed, you want to know what’s going on,” Gwin said. If someone is hit in the back of the head, odds are the condition is more serious.

Maguire ran through the some of the purposes of the team: to identify the scope of an incident, to develop an overall strategy, to deploy resources.

“One of the biggest resources we will have is you,” he said. “You have been trained.”

This is not the first emergency team for computer teacher Margie Rothblatt. She was part of one in her past life working for a telecommunications giant before joining the district in 2001.

The CERT team was her “chance to be part of a good thing,” she said.

“With the world the way it is, anything can happen, anywhere at anytime,” she said.

Special education teacher Laurie Honigman said the training changed her perspective.

“When I watch the evening news, I listen with a different ear now,” said the six-year veteran.

One of the harder lessons to learn was that sometimes, the best thing to do is wait.

“That is going to be the hardest thing for us . . . standing back” Rothblatt said. “Can you imagine being a person responding and not being able to go in there?”

But there is also the knowledge that nothing can be overlooked, Honigman said.

“You have to take everything very seriously. It’s not just kids writing in the bathroom,” she said, referencing the recent threats at Hillsborough High School that turned out to be false.

“You always need to be prepared,” Honigman said. “You have to take everything very seriously.”