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Preparing for disaster

After seven weeks of training Dave Swartz now has the skills to possibly save dozens of lives.

But he remains overwhelmed by what he says he still does not know.

Swartz was among 19 graduates of the City of Federal Way’s Community Emergency Response Team class on Saturday. The class, which includes lessons from fire, police and other public safety officials, prepares local residents to take active roles in rescue efforts should disaster strike their neighborhoods.

“Even after a training class, you see that’s there’s a great deal to be learned,” Swartz said. “But it made you feel better prepared, so you can help out the next time something happens.”

The final installment of the course wrapped up Saturday at the Federal Way Fire District’s training station on Dash Point Road. Before the certificates were handed out, the classmates executed an earthquake rescue drill by practicing an evacuation of nine wounded people from two homes. Students from Thomas Jefferson High School’s Emergency Response Club were covered in fake blood and debris to act as quake victims.

Cindy DeSimone, a Federal Way resident and mother, signed up for the course to learn about disaster psychology. DeSimone is finishing her psychology degree at Washington State University, and hopes to begin graduate study in the field next year.

“I’m really glad I did it because I feel capable now,” she said of the course. “It prepares you to know what you can do and you can’t do. You would have no unrealistic expectations.”

DeSimone said she knows if disaster strikes, she’ll be a volunteer who can step in to help, rather than a bystander watching tragedy unfold from the sidelines.

“The more people who have this training, the better we’re going to do – less people are going to die,” she said.

Besides disaster psychology the course included search and rescue, disaster first aid, damage assessment and fire suppression components.

Federal Way Volunteer and Neighborhood Program Coordinator Jennifer Teeler said interest in the skill set has been running high since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many people are interested in obtaining expertise they otherwise would have taken for granted.

“The skills learned are pretty universal,” she said. “In a disaster, emergency personnel probably wouldn’t be able to get to you for three days.”

Another seven-week course should be offered next spring, she said.

She called the class unqualified success because of the community members who offered their time to teach the lessons.

“They believe in the program,” she said.

Greg Vause of the Federal Way police department, a specialist in urban search and rescue techniques, donated his time. Vause said it was crucial for students to see real-world scenarios, not just textbooks.

“We can’t just read the book and understand search and rescue. We can’t just read the book and understand first aid,” he said. “We try to make this as real as possible so when they sit down, you can tell by their eyes what they have (learned).”

Judy Harmon, Weyerhaeuser regional safety and health coordinator, taught the disaster first-aid component of the course, and watched as students ran through Saturday’s drill.

“I think they felt a bit overwhelmed, which is very natural with the limited amount of training that they had,” Harmon said. “They had to think bigger than they do in day-to-day life.”

But she said graduates will surely be able to step up should disaster strike.

Vause agreed.

“I’m very confident that our people are going to be able to interface with the fire department and the police department,” he said, “and go out there and do a really good job.”

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