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First high school emergency operations center opens in Connecticut

Students will get hands-on career development experience while providing support to first responders

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Vinal Technical High School held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday as it unveiled its new emergency operations center, which will give students hands-on training assisting first responder communications.

Photo/Connecticut Technical Education and Career System Facebook

Cassandra Day
The Middletown Press, Conn.

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Vinal Technical High School’s Criminal Justice and Protective Services Program unveiled its state-of-the-art emergency operations center Monday during a ribbon cutting attended by more than 100 people.

The collaboration is the first of its kind in a high school setting nationwide, officials said. It will provide students with hands-on, career development experience as they provide support to federal resources deployed around the United States in times of disaster.

Those present Monday included Vinal students immersed in the training program, state and local dignitaries, school administrators, as well as fire and police officers, Middletown emergency management personnel, communications workers and first responders who all gathered in the cafeteria at 60 Daniels St.

“We prepare them specifically so they can get high-paying jobs right out of high school. For those who continue on into the jobs, they’re going to have more certifications than a four-year police officer leaving high school,” said David Cruickshank, head of the CJPS department.

He was a police officer in Berlin for 12 years. “They offered me the opportunity to build this program from the ground up,” said Cruickshank, whose experience also includes working for Hunter’s Ambulance and as a dispatcher.

The students will be licensed as state emergency medical responders or emergency medical technicians, depending on the educational path they choose, Cruickshank said

“For those who want to jump right into the trade, they can. We have students working as paid state employees — at age 16 — with the state Department of Mental Health and Addictions Services, working undercover with detectives,” he said.

Using their extensive Federal Emergency Management Agency training, the EOC, and field-experienced mentors, students monitor internet resources and news outlets in real time, and compile critical updates for field personnel during rescue and recovery operations.

“Television and the movies, they sell the shop for us. To show them these jobs are real and they are possible, and if you want to work for the FBI, you can do that,” Cruickshank said.

Joe Linskey, Criminal Justice and Protective Services instructor, said most people think this type of training is only offered to those going into police services.

“There are so many jobs this training can prepare you for. There are thousands of jobs out there. Our kids, when they leave this program, have many certifications,” Linskey said.

CTEC Superintendent Jeffrey Wihbey said the kernel of the school’s new program arose from watching a similar curriculum in Massachusetts vocational schools.

The program has garnered so much interest among freshmen students that already 40 are interested in enrolling next year, he said.

“That’s a mark of very healthy, thriving shop,” Wihbey said. In fact, it’s been so successful at Vinal, the state’s technical school system will be offering the same program at Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport.

This is Lila Cartwright’s second year in the program. She and her fellow students earned FEMA certifications and began practicing their skills and running mock EOCs soon into the class.

“I’ve learned that people out in this field don’t just find out this information randomly. We’re all about preparing them and making sure they know about resources,” said Cartwright, who enjoys searching for and discovering information and plans on a security career.

Many of sophomore Wyatt Malone’s family members have experience as fire and police officers: His father is a firefighter, two of his uncles are police officers, one working for the state force; and his grandfather was in fire protection.

Before this school year, Malone, who loves science and forensics, never had heard of FEMA.

“They make it fun to do this. When you give the students gigabit internet, then you see what they do with it: ‘I never would have thought of that,’” Cruickshank said.

He marveled at how adept young people are these days when they enter secondary education.

“It’s unbelievable how kids teach themselves these days. If you give them a topic, they research it on their own, they find out all the information, they come in the next day and have presentations. They email me videos at night,” he said.

“The opportunities that exist within Vinal, and for our students, post-high school are infinite, when provided the best technical education, which we do here,” according to Vinal President Javette Allen.

The goal is “to prepare a highly skilled workforce that will propel Connecticut’s future growth, competitiveness and economic opportunity by preparing individuals for high-wage, highly skilled jobs.”

The Eversource Foundation provided a grant and donated state-of-the-art equipment, and access to top emergency management leaders for training and mentoring. Comcast provided in-kind support by constructing a dedicated line to the EOC that provides courtesy gigabit ethernet service, including WiFi and Xfinity X1 video service.

“The only way to develop curriculum and instructional models for post-secondary success and immediate economic needs is for business and educational leaders to build collaborative partnerships — partnerships that leverage their combined knowledge of the labor market, employment skills, pedagogy and our students,” Allen said.

Middletown Fire Chief Robert Kronenberger credits Battalion Chief Steve Salafia for being at the “forefront” of fostering a relationship with these students, along with firefighter Margo Ward.

“We’re having a direct influence on the students who want to go into the fire, EMS side of things,” said Kronenberger, whose department donated older fire equipment for the students. “We’ll continue to partner with them because they’re running an excellent program.”

Students who live in Haddam or the city’s South Fire District wouldn’t be exposed to these opportunities since their departments are volunteer. In Middletown only Westfield’s fire department is volunteer.

“A lot of the kids in Middletown ... really don’t have access to this. This is what will give them access. Now when they want to make a career choice, they’re not making it blindly,” Kronenberger said.


©2019 The Middletown Press, Conn.