Twelve Union County teenagers are short on life experience but long on heart, community spirit and a sense of adventure.

They are the young people completing a new federally funded emergency preparedness class for youths age 13 to 19 now being taught in La Grande. The students are learning about everything from the dangers posed by air bags inside automobiles that have crashed to the science of doing cardio pulmonary resuscitation.

The six-week class — which is part of the My Preparedness Initiative (MyPi), is an Oregon Youth Preparedness Initiative program coordinated by Oregon State University — is in its final week.

“(The students) are doing an awesome job,” said Robin Gerber, a longtime Union County 4-H leader who is co-teaching the course with her husband, Lou, who served as a medic in the National Guard for many years.

The students’ knowledge base was expanded Saturday by firefighters with the Imbler and La Grande rural departments who provided hands-on experience in how to rescue someone trapped in a car following an accident. The youths were shown how firefighters cut through vehicles with tools like hydraulically powered Jaws of Life to reach people quickly.

Before they got to the cutting process, though, the firefighters discussed in detail how important it is to first shut down a vehicle’s electrical system and dismantle its entire airbag system. Imbler Fire Department Chief Mike Barry explained that cutting into a vehicle can trigger the deployment of airbags, which could break the necks and legs of rescuers.

“The same thing that can save lives (of vehicle passengers) can be hard on firefighters,” Barry said.

Barry was one of about five firefighters who participated in Saturday’s rescue demonstration. He was joined by Jon Louden, Josh Holbert and Tyrel Arant of the La Grande Rural Fire Department and Ken Patterson of the Imbler Rural Fire Department. The firefighters taught the students how to dismantle a vehicle and provided an overview of how they work at and manage accident scenes.

A key point was the importance of being organized, as it is critical in the high-intensity environment at many accident scenes.

“We try to bring order out of chaos,” Barry said.

Firefighters from the Imbler and La Grande rural fire departments have been among many current and former first responders who have addressed the class.

“Our guest speakers have been tremendous,” Lou Gerber said.

Guest speakers on Saturday also included Bill Rautenstrauch, a former Observer reporter and retired National Guardsman who was an EMT in Wallowa County for 11 years. As a first responder, he made hundreds of ambulance runs, many late at night.

“It was an exciting time,” Rautenstrauch said.

His most memorable calls include one in which an injured hunter had to be pulled in a sled for three miles after his bleeding was stopped.

Rautenstrauch said despite Wallowa County’s relatively small population, the life of an EMT there could be hectic.

“It is surprising how lively things would get,” he said.

In addition to what life is like as an EMT, the many skills the MyPi students are learning include how to extinguish small fires, conduct light search and rescue operations, set up medical treatment areas, assist emergency responders, identify hazards, reduce fire hazards in the home and workplace, help reduce survivor stress, assist with crowd control, assist with evacuations and more.

Students attending the class have a variety of goals. La Grande Middle School student Ethan Jacobson said he wants to use the skills he is developing to help him someday become a member of the Anthony Lakes Ski Patrol.

Imbler High School student Elexis Pierce said she hopes the training she is receiving will help her become a wildland firefighter. She comes from a family with a firefighting legacy, since a number of her relatives have worked for the Imbler Fire Department.

Dalton Derrah, a LHS freshman, said he is taking the class because he wants to be able to reach out to his community.

“I’ve always wanted to help people,” he said.

Derrah said one of the most challenging parts of the class for him is memorizing the different procedures to be followed when administering CPR. For example, the number of chest compressions and breaths a child should receive is different from those of an adult.

“It is a lot more complicated than I thought,” he said. “It opened my eyes.”

All students in the class, which has been meeting since April, will take a certification test this week.

Lou Gerber has been impressed with how much effort the students have put in.

“It has been a big commitment,” said Gerber, who with his wife, Robin, received extensive training on teaching the course from the Oregon Youth Preparedness Initiative program.

He added he is thankful for the valuable support the class received from sponsors and the community.

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