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A Pinellas Park High magnet program is the state's first four-year class in emergency response.

In the first two weeks of school, Pinellas Park High ninth-grader Marlee Michael learned how to put a mannequin on a stretcher and load both onto a fake ambulance.

It was tricky as the metal stretcher has many pinch-points, she said.

"You don't want your fingers in the wrong place," she cautioned.

Marlee, 14, is among Pinellas Park High's first group of students to participate in the school's new First Responders magnet program.

The program is a four-year elective course that teaches students how to deal with an emergency, whether it's a fire or a terrorist attack, a hurricane or a riot.

The idea for the program came from the U.S. National Guard, which approached the Pinellas County school district about providing such training for students, said David Barnes, the district's director of career, technical and adult education.

Schools officials say the goal of the program is to educate students at Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo, on the different jobs in the emergency management field.

"They will have an opportunity to explore the different fields," said Randy Bacher, the program's teacher and a retired firefighter. "This gives them a great background and a leg up."

Through the National Guard and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the First Responders magnet program secured more than $800,000 in startup funding for the school, Barnes said. The district will shoulder the cost of continuing the program, the first of its kind in the state.

Most of the seed money was spent on paying teachers to come up with a curriculum and on classroom materials such as simulation software, computers, handheld Global Positioning System equipment and biohazard suits, said Jill Dileanis, the school's assistant principal and First Responders program coordinator.

For starters, one classroom in the program's newly dedicated wing was outfitted with an ambulance simulator, complete with two mannequins, stretchers and other equipment.

Each of the five classrooms devoted to the program have computer stations for students, where they will learn how to deal with virtual fires and 911 calls, and map out disaster areas in a group, Dileanis said.

"It's like real-world gaming," she said.

Already, the program drew more students than what district officials had hoped for, which was 70. Eighty-one students out of the school's 605 freshmen are enrolled in the First Responder's program. School officials hope to expand it year by year as this batch of ninth-graders moves up.

The new program is not a threat to the school's other, more established criminal justice magnet program, Dileanis said. It deals with legal matters, for students who want to be "police or lawyers," while "my kids deal with biological stuff."

Students will learn about the different areas related to emergency and disaster response, said Pinellas Park High principal John Johnston. They could be working for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard or even municipal emergency planning departments, he said. The possibilities are endless.

Marlee, a Clearwater resident who chose Pinellas Park High because of the program, wants to be a nurse practitioner or a pediatrician when she's older. Classmate Sarah Nelson, 14, can't decide between an emergency room doctor or obstetrician gynecologist.

Both are excited about the program at Pinellas Park High.

"It really opens my eyes to what's out there, what first responders go through on their jobs," Sarah said.

Her mother, Theresa Nelson-Benham, sees the potential of the program. "A lot of people don't understand what's it like being an EMT or to work in the emergency room," said Nelson-Benham, who works at St. Anthony's Hospital in St. Petersburg. "We're short of staff in general, so this is helpful in the future."


What they learn in First Responders

Students in the First Responders magnet program will take a yearlong class called Emergency Response and Planning. According to the four-year curriculum, students are expected to demonstrate basic knowledge in these areas, among others:

- Emergency planning

- Public safety

- Community-based organizations

- Preventing blood-borne pathogens such as HIV and hepatitis B and C

- The National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System

- CPR and how to use an automated external defibrillator, known as an AED

- Search and rescue techniques

Once done with high school, students who want to pursue a career in emergency or disaster management can consider these options:

St. Petersburg College offers an associate's degree program in emergency administration and management, among other courses.

The College of Public Health officials at the University of South Florida in Tampa is putting together an undergraduate minor in disaster management. For those interested in working on a more global level, the college offers an online master's degree in global disaster management and humanitarian relief.