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Ready for the Most Important Test

W.R. Nelson Elementary in Tustin takes disaster preparedness seriously, and the O.C. Red Cross says it's a model for other schools to study.


Where's the best place to be when the big one hits?

For grade-school students, it could be W.R. Nelson Elementary School in Tustin.

The school won the Orange County Red Cross' Academy Award in disaster preparedness for schools in June and it's easy to see why.

Most schools ask parents to send a bag with food and water for emergency use each year. At Nelson, students had that option or they could buy a $9 student survival kit the PTA put together using granola bars, water, a light stick and solar blanket. The kits are good for up to five years.

Then there's the large shed that houses supplies including Porta Pottis, stretchers, 50-gallon drums of water, picks and wrenches, helmets and flashlights. And the school has formed a search and rescue team of teachers.

In each of the 28 classrooms, a barrel holds individual food supplies, a tarp, a clipboard and a teacher backpack that contains basic first aid supplies, a disaster plan and a map of the school.

The clipboard includes a list of students in that class and copies of emergency release forms signed by parents or guardians. If the students are evacuated to a grassy area or the blacktop, the plan calls for teachers to don bright orange vests to be seen easily, take roll, send "accountability forms" about missing students to the command center and combine classes to free up other teachers for search and rescue, communications or medical duties.

Many of the teachers and even two school crossing guards have been trained in CPR.

When it comes to preparedness, the school has gone the Boy Scouts one better.

"Our motto is 'Be prepared, not scared,' " said Debbie Elwood, who was the PTA's emergency representative last year.

Elwood, who has a second-grader at the school, spent months putting together the student survival kits and checked to make sure every one of the 650 students had one. The PTA bought the shed and spends about $500 a year on emergency preparedness.

Kindergarten teacher Karen Richards coordinates the state emergency management program at the school, which calls for monthly practices and several kinds of drills each year, leading up to a state drill in April. Richards attended the Red Cross' Disaster Academy, an annual event that teaches representatives of schools, businesses and groups how to do triage and emergency first aid as well as stage disaster drills.

Richards learned her lessons well. Her drills are set up to test both the students and the teachers. In April, the school held an earthquake drill that was a lot tougher than the usual duck-and-cover. Richards and co-coordinator Carol Hayes set up situations known only to them to see how the teams reacted.

"One teacher was supposedly left behind in a classroom with a broken leg, and a student with a head injury was unconscious in a room," Richards said.

The drill went smoothly, as did this year's first drill, which didn't include any simulated injuries. Students practiced ducking under the desk, covering their necks while holding onto the desk with one hand. Then, under "code white," they evacuated the school in silence, so any new instructions could be heard, Richards said.

"We told the children about this one because it was the first one of the year and we didn't want them to be scared," Elwood said. By simulating different situations in later drills, such as when a teacher has to spot that a child is missing, "We hope we are prepared for anything," she said.

The school practices the standard fire drills and the not-so-standard "intruder alerts." Students are instructed to duck under their desks while teachers lock classroom doors from the inside. For a touch of realism last year, a school janitor disguised as a stranger came around and rattled the door knobs.

"If anything really does happen, we hope the kids will just think it's another drill and not be really scared," Elwood said.

Nelson's strong combination of parent and teacher involvement made its plan a winner over several other schools, said Debbie Leahy-Graves, director of health and safety at the Red Cross.

"We know no one is ever completely prepared, but they have a very strong model that will hopefully show other schools how they can be better prepared," she said.

Nelson's to-the-max disaster planning has been going on for about eight years. Every year, the PTA adds something to the supplies, and this year is no exception: The school plans to add walkie-talkies.

Preparedness crews decided that old-fashioned technology might be more reliable than modern cell phones and their too-frequent "No Service" messages.

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