Government Police/Fire Schools

West Hartford Teens Train in Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response

From left: Mebret Farquhar, Lauren Hardesty, Sadie Levy, Charles Moore II, and Lillian Williams at the final training day for the Teen CERT Mastery Experience program. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Graduation from the Teen CERT program fulfills the West Hartford Public Schools Mastery Experience requirement.

Retired Fire Department Capt. Jeff Dufresne instructs students in the Teen CERT Program how to properly use a fire extinguisher. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

Following a syllabus that lists “How to prepare for zombie apocalypse” as the description of the planned activity for day No. 1, a group of West Hartford teens graduated from a unique program this summer.

They likely won’t be slaying zombies anytime soon – if that’s even possible – but 19 high school students are now equipped to assist with disaster preparedness and emergency response following completion of the first ever Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Certificate Program for teens. The two-week program included classroom and hands-on training.

The class of 2023 is the first cohort in the state required to complete a “Mastery Experience” to graduate from a Connecticut public school, and the inaugural Teen CERT program also satisfies the mastery requirement. The students in the Teen CERT class were mostly rising sophomores through seniors.

At the end of the practical, many of the participants gathered for a photo before receiving their certificates. Photo credit: Ronni Newton


West Hartford’s program is the first of its kind in the state – a collaboration between the school district, Office of Emergency Management, CERT, West Hartford’s police and fire departments, Animal Control, and the Department of Social Services.

Just like the CERT training for adults launched in West Hartford last summer, the eight sessions, held mornings earlier this summer, provided training in CPR, fire safety, search and rescue, first aid, and disaster psychology. Topics included terrorism and active shooter situations, the students experienced demonstrations of equipment in police Emergency Support Unit (aka SWAT) vehicles and equipment on fire apparatus including what’s used by the firefighter/paramedics.

Ofc. Matthew Zobel demonstrates some of the equipment on the Emergency Services Unit vehicle. Courtesy of Bob McCue

Most of the sessions were held at Conard High School, but for their final practical, the class met at 100 Mayflower Street – what was formerly St. Brigid School and is now a town-owned building that will in the future become the new Elmwood Community Center – where they eagerly engaged in activities that included learning to actually deploy fire extinguishers (in the parking lot), and conducting searches inside the building and on the grounds for “missing persons” according to a variety of scenarios.

Mike McGarry, an environmental and earth science teacher at Conard, was the lead instructor, but two hours of each day was led by Office of Emergency Management Deputy Director and CERT leader Bob McCue (who retired as assistant chief from the West Hartford Police Department) and CERT member Bob Hilborn, a Coast Guard veteran now retired from the high tech industry, who developed the program and its core skills specifically for West Hartford.

Instructor Bob Hilborn demonstrates the recovery position to students while teacher Mike McGarry plays the victim. Courtesy of Bob McCue

Connecticut’s “Mastery-Based Learning,” as described by the State Department of Education, emphasizes college and career readiness and is student-centered, empowering students to take ownership of projects based on their own interests.

McGarry said there are many types of mastery experiences that can be used to satisfy the graduation requirement, which in West Hartford corresponds to the district’s “Vision of the Graduate.” Mastery projects include demonstration of collaboration, effective communication, inquiry and critical thinking, and problem solving and creativity.

West Hartford Public Schools has identified eight skills and dispositions for students to master by graduation. Courtesy image

There are opportunities in West Hartford during the school year, but some students use summer programs to get ahead.

“These are skills you can use in everyday life,” McGarry said of the Teen CERT program. “We’re looking for avenues for them.”

As part of the class, the students kept journals and for their final project created a poster illustrating the skills they learned.

“We’re here to have fun, but you just might learn something,” Hilborn said. “If you see someone fall, you’re empowered to help them. [The students] will know what to do.”

Once they’re 18, the students can be adult members of CERT.

The course is very data rich, but the students really appreciated the two hours each day of field-based training. “They’re getting the same training as adults,” Hilborn said. “You talk about real world situations.”

Students ask questions of West Hartford Police Ofc. Matthew Zobel. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Ofc. Matthew Zobel, who joined the West Hartford Police Department about two years ago after being an officer for about 12 years in Texas, gave the students a demo of the equipment on department vehicle used by the ESU. He also answered a variety of questions from the students and shared that skills he learned in the classroom – including in math class – are important in his current job. “I use trigonometry, calculus, geometry, and algebra every day in crash reconstruction,” he said.

Mebret Farquhar, a rising senior at Conard, jumped at the chance to satisfy her mastery requirement through the Teen CERT program.

“I’ve always been interested in being a first responder,” she said. “My plan is to be an EMT after high school. It’s also a way to get my mastery credit doing something I enjoy.” She said she wished the course was longer than two weeks.

Mebret Farquhar leads a team on a search and rescue. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Farquhar also listened eagerly to information shared by McCue and Hilborn about college programs in emergency response at places like the University of New Haven. She said becoming a 911 dispatcher, or perhaps a firefighter/paramedic, were also careers she would consider.

“Pull, aim, squeeze, sweep,” said retired West Hartford Fire Capt. Jeff Dufresne, who now works in the Office of Emergency Management, as he gave Farquhar and the other students a chance to use a variety of fire extinguishers to douse a controlled fire set in a metal fire box in the parking lot.

Retired Fire Department Capt. Jeff Dufresne helps Mebret Farquhar extinguish a fire. Photo by Ronni Newton

The day of the practical, the students also split up into teams to conduct search and rescue missions inside and outside the 100 Mayflower building. Lifesize inflatable mannequins were hidden by the instructors.

The interior search involved a scenario where police were looking for an elderly couple who had gone for a walk in the neighborhood but hadn’t come home when expected. CERT members assisting police were assigned to search the building.

A Teen CERT participant finds one of the “children” hiding under a ramp. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“The designated leader had to organize their team into a methodical search team,” Hilborn said. All of the groups successfully found the missing couple.

“They did better than the adults,” McCue said.

Teams also conducted an outdoor search for two children (smaller inflatable mannequins) who had been reported lost in the neighborhood.

“They wandered away,” McCue told the students, who were divided into teams, chose a leader, and came up with a plan to search the nearly 9-acre property. Each group was asked not to move the hidden mannequins once they were found, and not to tell the other teams.

The first group found one “child” hiding under the porch almost immediately, but took 15 minutes to find the other in the bushes.

Instructors in the Teen CERT program hid blow up mannequins for the students to find during a search and rescue exercise. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The second group took just over two minutes to find both “children.”

Charles Moore, who was leading the second group, split the students into two teams. “We then spread out into sections,” student Sadie Levy said.

One student from the second team didn’t see the “child” under the porch and said it was clear, but Moore, who had a flashlight, made the important and strategically correct decision to double-check and found the child.

“You perfected a methodical search. You worked as a team,” Hilborn said, commending the students.

Charles Moore was an eager participant in the Teen CERT Program, and led one of the search and rescue teams that quickly found two “children” who were hiding outside. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

During several of the sessions the students also observed the real-life response to an emergency. There was a medical call at Conard on one of the days – and a paramedic who was speaking to students immediately rushed through the building to assist, actually arriving after Engine 5 which drove from the station around the corner on Berkshire Road.

During the final practical, crews rushed from 100 Mayflower to respond to a motorcycle crash on New Britain Avenue.

Teen CERT was Hilborn’s idea, which he got approved by Director of Secondary Education Anne McKernan and Tim Kessler, Science Department supervisor and Summer School Programs coordinator. Hilborn said he plans to approach West Hartford Public Schools to see if a similar program can take place during the regular school year.

“They filled the one class, which is very encouraging for us,” McCue said, noting that the Capital Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) and the state have been supportive of the program in meeting the mastery requirement.

“It hits so many bells and whistles that we want,” and he hopes it also sparks interest in careers in emergency response.

Animal Control Supervisor Helen Lee speaks to the Teen CERT students at Conard High School. Courtesy of Bob McCue

“I’m extremely pleased with the way this came together,” McKernan said. “When Bob and Bob [McCue and Hilborn] came to me, they were looking to expose kids to careers and give them practical experience they can use at home.” The students now know what to safely handle a power outage, or how to deal with fallen branches – things that aren’t really taught in other types of classes. CERT also emphasizes volunteer opportunities.

A program that’s educational, career-oriented, and focused on personalized learning with an opportunity for reflection – which the students did at the end of each day by writing in a journal – perfectly fits the mastery requirement, McKernan said.

Hilborn said it’s important to have a diverse group of people as members of West Hartford CERT – to look more like the town. That includes having young people involved.

“It’s also part of the overall town effort to get more people prepared – awareness and preparedness,” McCue added. “We’re living in scary times.”

Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“The ‘C’ is very important to us,” said Hilborn, referencing the word “community” in Community Emergency Response Team.” The “E” is important as well, and those who complete the program learn how to best assist and support professionals during a disaster.

Farquhar said her friends who have already completed mastery programs have also had rewarding experiences through activities that included creating an app to track catalytic converter thefts and development of a website for Conard’s child development class.

“We want kids to grow toward the skills and dispositions” of the district’s “Vision of the Graduate,” McKernan said. “This program is a real winner.”

Teen CERT program participants got a demonstration of the equipment on a West Hartford Fire Department truck. Courtesy of Bob McCue

Students in the Teen CERT program learned CPR. Courtesy of Bob McCue

One of the hands-on activities for students in the Teen CERT program was spraying water from a fire hose. Courtesy of Bob McCue

Students ask questions of West Hartford Police Ofc. Matthew Zobel. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Retired Fire Department Capt. Jeff Dufresne instructs students in the Teen CERT Program how to properly use a fire extinguisher. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Firefighter/Paramedic Matthew Traber (left) and CERT leader Owen Kutscher assist during the Teen CERT training. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Retired Fire Department Capt. Jeff Dufresne instructs students in the Teen CERT Program how to properly use a fire extinguisher. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Teen CERT trainees practice a search and rescue mission. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

CERT Coordinator Bob McCue retired as an assistant chief of the West Hartford Police Department and serves as deputy director of the town’s Office of Emergency Management. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Charles Moore was an eager participant in the Teen CERT Program, and led one of the search and rescue teams that quickly found two “children” who were hiding outside. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Charles Moore was an eager participant in the Teen CERT Program, and led one of the search and rescue teams that quickly found two “children” who were hiding outside. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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