STEP program prepares students for emergencies

An innovative program called Student Tools for Emergency Planning (STEP) in the Milford Public School System is preparing students to be ready for all forms of natural disasters by teaching them to be ready for anything and what to do if the unthinkable happens.

Unlike other safety curriculums in the United States, this program is primarily designed by teachers and at no cost to school districts.

Jen Ramey, teacher leader at Pumpkin Delight Elementary School, believes the STEP program is helping students to be more prepared in the event of an emergency.

“It’s kind of becoming part of school culture,” Ramey said. Ramey is referring not just to the STEP program. She is referring to practicing a safe school climate in general.  

The program is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prepare young students for natural disasters. It was launched in Rhode Island and grew to implementation in 17 states as of 2014.

The goal of the program is to prepare students for emergency planning not just in school but also when natural disasters occur at home so they can act as leaders in implementing emergency plans.

“The program is geared toward empowering the kids,” Ramey said.

Each school year there is a presentation where students learn how to prepare for an emergency and how to put together their own supply kits for themselves and their families.

Representatives from the Milford police and fire departments assist with the presentations and interact with the students. One Milford firefighter shared a story about how his family developed an action plan in the event of fire in their home and where they would unite once outside the home. Police officers and firefighters even participated in a round of Safety Jeopardy at one of the schools.

The STEP program also requires one hour of instructional time during the school year for teachers and provides them with all the materials they need to teach the curriculum, including student handouts, instructional booklets and DVDs.

As part of the program, students are supplied with a special “emergency go kit” containing such starter items as a flashlight, batteries, whistle, and mylar blanket. Students are then encouraged to complete their “go kits” at home with items that would address the specific needs of their own families — such as shelf-stable foods, canned goods, copies of important family documents, and personal medications. In a real emergency, family members simply need to grab their kit, knowing everything they need is in there.

In Milford alone, more than 400 elementary school students in eight different schools are being taught how to prepare for an emergency.

Jeffrey Nielsen, the school safety and security coordinator, believes students have the ability to bring these skills out in the community.

“Students are our goodwill ambassadors,” Nielsen said. “They can bring home what they have learned and share it with their families.”

Nielsen also said the skills involved in emergency planning connect to all areas of the curriculum: math, science, social studies, language arts, art, health, and geography. For example, a student learning about earthquakes or tsunamis in geography class might also learn how to prepare and plan for such disasters.

“Students being better prepared for emergencies and natural disasters makes it easier for first responders to do their jobs,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen also said that any changes to the program would be made by FEMA.

“If FEMA develops future amendments to the STEP program, we will adjust our program accordingly,” Nielsen said. “These changes could be based on such things as lessons learned or on new methods for preparing and dealing with hazards.”

Those lessons include teaching students to identify quickly the type of event that is occurring, whether a natural disaster, an emergency or a hazard.

Students also learn what to do in severe weather, including tornadoes, hurricanes, and extreme heat or cold, and how to prepare for an earthquake.

Nielsen stressed that students must be prepared for any emergency.