Teen leads emergency management team at Bowie

Jonathanand von WupperfeldFor days after escaping severe flooding, an African American boy of six or seven wandered homeless inside the Austin Convention Center dressed only in a dirty T-shirt, a worn pair of jeans, and tennis shoes.

The image still haunts 16-year-old Jonathan DeLong, eight years after the two met following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina over the Labor Day Weekend in 2005.

The unidentified child and some 4,000 victims of hurricane Katrina set up residence inside the Austin Convention Center. DeLong, though only nine years old at the time, responded by giving away his toys to the boy and other evacuated Louisiana children.

It’s an experience that inspires DeLong to this day; he currently trains with other South Austin teenagers to become first responders in future disasters.  He also serves as the youngest volunteer of the statewide task force, Texas Search and Rescue (TEXSAR.) DeLong also represents the only teen member of Region 6 – throughout Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana – to serve on the nationwide Youth Preparedness Council in Washington, D.C. at a summit meeting twice a year. DeLong will serve two years on the council formed last year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.)

Last July DeLong served three days on the national council in Washington D.C., meeting with FEMA and Homeland Security representatives to talk about strategies, initiatives and special projects that interest him.

One of his special projects includes the formation of a pilot program at James Bowie High School that trains teens to become potential first responders for everything from 911 types of emergencies to full blown disasters throughout their community.

DeLong leads a teen Community Emergency Response Team (CERT,) program as an after school extra-curricular club, sponsored by Bowie physics teacher Patricia Dittmar.  The program is the first of its kind located in any of the schools within the Austin Independent School District, said John Gaete, AISD emergency management coordinator.

Teens enrolled in the CERT program may not respond to any on-campus critical incidents, but they may respond to emergencies and disasters off campus or within their neighborhoods and community. The program also intends to raise teen awareness of response readiness in the event of a disaster, critical incident or emergency situation.

“Jonathan DeLong is a unique individual serving on a national panel – the Youth Preparedness Council. It’s a pretty big deal,” said John Gaete, emergency management coordinator for Austin AISD. “He is impressive. I don’t think we could have chosen a better leader for CERT at Bowie.”

Jonathan DeLong felt inspired while tagging along with his mom, mental health  responder Laurie DeLong, while caring for people displaced by Katrina, who lived in the Austin Convention Center for weeks afterwards. He also acted an honorary member of the Austin Adult CERT program over the past seven years.

“I can still remember everything about that time in 2005 at the Convention Center. I remember the smell. Sometimes when I get a whiff of that smell or something bad in the trash, that smell brings back all those memories,” Jonathan DeLong said.

The smell was caused by the water and other elements that evacuees had to wade through to escape the storm and had permeated their clothing and parse belongings they brought with them from home. The sights inside the convention center also assaulted his senses, he said.

“I had to walk through triage – (an area where medical service personnel determine the degree of emergency treatment needed for incoming patients based upon their injuries.) There were countless people. I looked to my left and saw nothing but cots and I looked to my right and saw nothing but more cots along with a projector screen hanging down where people got to see pictures of their houses destroyed. Everyone stood there watching and waiting to see what they had left – which wasn’t much – as the reports about the damage done by Katrina in Louisiana came in from CNN,” DeLong said.

“I used to carry inside my toys in my backpack. There were a lot of children my age or younger and I would give them my toys. It would help them to cope with what they were going through because there was someone else there who was their age and who understood what they were going through.”

His presence initially caused some hesitancy among TEXSAR first responders at the Austin Convention Center, he said.

“As long as I stayed with my mom and didn’t stray too far away, or try to take on things that I couldn’t, then it as all right,” he said.

“There were so many effects of Katrina that flowed into the emergency response world – conflicts and miscommunications existed within even the Austin Convention Center – and that multiplied tens of thousands of times over throughout the national community.  Looking back, I don’t how people were able to keep it together and work as a team, but they did.”

Jonathan DeLong said that he made a special long-lasting connection with another boy whom he met while spending a few hours every day over the span of several days volunteering after school with his mother, in the convention center helping the displaced.

“I also remember specifically this boy about my age, of a different ethnicity.  He always had on the same jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes. He looked like he had been taken care of by his parents. He stuck out because every day that I went down there to the convention center I saw him with his family. I would always sit down with him. We would talk. He was only about 6 or 7 years old – at that time he was my age and he had nothing. I gave him a lot of my toys – Hot Wheels cars and stuffed animals. I don’t remember so much of what we said, as much as just him. I became somewhat close to him and always talked to him a little bit longer than anybody else.”

Jonathan DeLong never learned his Louisiana friend’s name, nor did he ever learn where the boy went after his stay at the convention center.

“I went to see him that last day and he wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened to him. His cot wasn’t made. I never got to say ‘goodbye.’ For some reason, that has just stuck with me,” DeLong said. “I do think about him quite often. He forever changed me. I wish I could remember his name so that I could at least try to find him. He’s who got me interested in emergency response.”

He said that he also felt as a youngster that the team of adult first responders seemed out-numbered by the shear numbers of people with their dire needs inside the temporary hurricane shelter. He remembers the experience instilled in him a sense of duty and obligation for years afterwards to provide added support for future disasters.

“People would take bandages, medicines and supplies as they left the convention center. They would take anything of significance – food, drinks, and electronics with them. Other times, they had (contagious) diseases as they left the convention center; they left with the potential of spreading the diseases out in the community,” he said. “Responders had to think both of themselves and everybody else left inside.”

Years later, Jonathan DeLong said he felt a call to be a first responder to victims of a fire at Steiner Ranch that destroyed 50 homes and burned 125 acres in September 2011. He was attending classes at Bowie that day when he heard the news on a television inside  a journalism class.  He remembers feeling frustrated by having to wait for the school day to end before he could help CERT alongside of his mother. Though adult CERT  responders must be at least 18 years old to officially respond in an emergency, Jonathan DeLong accompanied his mother to provide food and water to first responders at the Steiner Ranch fire station.

“The first responders would come in in shifts and they’d rehydrate. We offered any first aid that they needed before they went back out,” Laurie DeLong said. “At his age, there hasn’t been any problem with him (Jonathan) doing that.”

For the DeLongs, the pilot CERT program at Bowie represents the realization of their shared goal that began at the Austin Convention Center following Katrina six years ago.

Jonathan DeLong and about a half dozen other teens currently enrolled in the program at Bowie, will help realize that goal when they complete 20 hours of after-school training in November. Students committed themselves to attending classes from 4:30 until 7 p.m. each Wednesday throughout the fall semester in order to earn their CERT certification.

During their final class they will gain first-hand experience by participating in disaster drill simulations from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday Nov. 16 while training TEXSAR across the street from the Sunset Valley Police Department, Laurie DeLong said.

Austin’s TEXSAR group has opened another branch in Galveston; together the two groups provide search and rescue and recovery when requested, throughout the entire state, she said.

“They serve primarily all across the state, but they have gone out of state when requested,” she said. “We do a lot of body recovery too. When they (TEXSAR) don’t expect to find the person (who is reported missing) alive; those are the calls we (CERT) typically will go on with TEXSAR. We manage the commands for them.”

CERT teens will gain the increased awareness and readiness to help other adolescent victims of Central Texas disasters and large scale emergencies.

“John DeLong is a remarkable young man. His experience and knowledge make him a great advocate for Teen CERT,” said FEMA Region 6 Individual and Community Preparedness Specialist Bill Bischof. “We plan on connecting him with teens in all our Region 6 states so that he can encourage them to participate in Teen CERT.”

The Bowie teens who will become first responders, will fill a void, Jonathan DeLong said.

“Youth make up about 25 percent of the population in a disaster. Some of the problems that youths have to go through are different than they are for adults – we have school, we have lost girlfriends, a lot of times youths get really attached to their pets, their makeup, their hygiene products,” DeLong said.

“With guys, it’s their wallet, their keys, their car that they miss – because the car represents freedom at this stage in their lives. You know, when you get your wheels and the world feels like your own. It’s just a different array of problems and they deal with disasters differently when compared to adults.”

He said teenagers make the best CERT program trainees.

“Because they’re younger, they’re easier to train and their will is stronger. They will be able to carry what they learned here today, forward into the rest of their lives,” Jonathan DeLong said. “They’ll use these skills, even if they don’t stick with CERT or TEXSAR. They will be able to use these skills in other aspects of emergency readiness in their community.”

Jonathan DeLong also empathizes with adult victims of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

“I met this really tall man who was in his late 20s. He had short hair and he was African American. He wore shorts and a white T-shirt and flip flops. He came up to my mom and I. We didn’t see him coming. He was extremely emotionally distressed. He was worried about the things that he to leave behind.  A lot of those people came to Austin on buses from the Louisiana coast. The buses were so crowded that the people couldn’t take a lot of things with them. He had lost everything. He didn’t know where the rest of his family was. He was crying. I could barely understand him because he was sobbing so hard,” he said.

“That’s when my mom told me ‘All right Jon, you’re going to have to stand back. This is something I have to deal with alone.’ She took the man away to talk to him and to get him help. I remember Mom taking him off. I watched them walk away and they rounded a corner. I didn’t know what happened to him after that. For some reason, that really stuck with me.”

At the time that she volunteered to help people displaced by Katrina, Laurie DeLong also worked as the director of Phoenix House for teenagers with substance abuse problems. Currently, she is employed by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Another Bowie teenager, 17-year-old Patricia Van Sickles, said she wanted to join the CERT program because some day she would like to become a nurse for the United States Navy.

“I’m just trying to get into medical stuff and get myself ready for any situation I might be put into working as a nurse for the military,” Van Sickles said. “I want to go into the medical field and I want to be able to help people while I’m still young.”

Sixteen-year-old Hannah Konyecsni would like to study forensic science in college and the CERT program at Bowie prepares her for worst case scenarios.

“You never really know when something bad will happen. You have to be prepared for anything – especially with a lot of the (tragic) events going on in the world lately,” Konyecsni said. “Both of my parents are doctors and I’ve witnessed them stopping to render to aid in car crashes and I want to be able to help too.”

Students enrolled in the CERT program receive a textbook, Community Emergency Response Team, that includes unit goals, special topics, and public health considerations.

Mike von Wupperfeld, safety officer for the Austin Travis County EMS spoke to the Bowie CERT group Oct. 9. Von Wupperfeld presented an organized unit of training, complete with a Microsoft PowerPoint slideshow, for the CERT trainees entitled “(Disaster) Medical Operations.” The training provides both student participants and others pertinent information about how to respond to critical incidents that occur within their neighborhoods and community.

Von Wupperfield showed the students how to apply medical gloves without touching contaminated any surfaces. He said that most medical gloves typically only last as long as six months when exposed to the Texas heat before they deteriorate so they are a maintenance item that needs checking. Furthermore, emergency responders should never use Latex gloves because so many people have allergies to them. He also demonstrated how to blow into the medical gloves to ensure their structural integrity. In disasters, responders may use buckets of diluted bleach or soap to wash their gloved hands often between patients as replacement gloves may be in short supply.

“When you go between patients we either clean our gloves using a liquid soap or change our gloves to avoid cross-contamination of the sick and injured,” Von Wupperfield said.

“After removing your gloves, you should wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing the song ‘Happy Birthday’ – 20 to 30 seconds. Soap and warm water works well; you don’t have to use anti-bacterial soap.  If you use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, don’t wash it off – let it air dry — alcohol kills the ‘bugs’ by the drying action.”

Before responding to a critical incident or disaster, emergency responders often place dust masks and goggles on their faces to keep liquids or debris from getting into their nose, mouth or eyes.

At the scene of an emergency, exercising caution as the best rule of thumb, he said.

“When you arrive at an emergency, assess the scene’s safety – using a windshield view as you’re driving up to it,” von Wupperfeld said. “Ask yourself ‘What do I see? Do I have the knowledge, the skills and equipment to help?’ before you respond.”

Initial evaluation involves a quick Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment (START) protocol that identifies those with immediate medical needs, delayed needs, minor needs, and those that are deceased. Performed quickly, START allows for the fast assessment of any number of casualties.

Next a responder should assess their patients with a secondary head-to-toe triage to further identify their needs. The assessment can start by asking victims at a scene “Can you tell me what happened, where you are, or who you are?” he said. At times, the injured suffer a rapid deterioration in their memory of what happened at a scene. This protocol is followed by a hands-on head-to-toe assessment.

“Look, listen, and feel,” von Wupperfeld said. “Look for medical identification an injuries in a head-to-toe assessment. Work from the head first down to the legs.”

Von Wupperfeld said that emergency responders likely will be provided with bags of color-coded tags that identify treatment priorities. Each tag will have bar codes on them to aid in tracking the patient from the scene of a critical incident to EMS and to the hospital.

He said the three top killers at the scene of any disaster are: airways obstruction, excessive bleeding and shock. He said the START Triage system remains the same for any emergency responder, including those who worked at Austin City Limits at Zilker Park during the first two weekends this October.

Von Wupperfeld also taught students how to assess victims of fire or severe chemical burns and taught them to apply bandages. When assessing a burn’s severity, responders use the size of the injured person’s palm to measure the percentage of the body burned; one person’s hand equals 1 percent.

He also said the depth of any burn may increase without immediate medical attention; he told the students never to apply ice to any type of burn, only water to cool it down. For someone under the age of 10 or older than 50, any type of burn requires immediate care based upon their expected rate of recovery. He showed the students how to apply sanitized gauze bandages to burns to hands.

Von Wupperfield also showed students how to apply splints for victims who have broken bones. Students practiced setting splints on one another and applied sling bandages to support them.

He also taught students how to look for signs of hypothermia, a condition that occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops below their normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or somewhere between 98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit as a result of exposure to cool or cold environmental conditions. He acknowledged that for some people, normal body temperature ranges slightly below 98 degree Fahrenheit.

“People with hypothermia are very irritable and may argue with you and tell you that they are fine,” Von Wupperfeld said. “They’re probably shivering severely; when they stop shivering it becomes a life-threatening emergency.”

Von Wupperfeld warned students about the dangers of using untreated or unfiltered water in an emergency.

“Before using any water, in a disaster, use proper water sanitation methods,” Von Wupperfeld said. “Boil it for several minutes and let it cool or treat the water using official water purification tablets, following package instructions. Be aware that the tablets don’t work instantly.”

He said water temperature and foreign material in the water affect how long the purification process takes. For those who can afford them, the camping style water purification systems take the guess work out of purifying water for drinking and cooking.

One of the most dangerous health threats found in water at disaster sites or flooding scenes is often giardia – a microscopic parasitic organism that causes diarrheal illness and if untreated, possible death in infected humans and animals, he said.

The CERT program was created nationally following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack and disaster.  In Austin Sonia Goodman, is the CERT coordinator for the City of Austin Homeland Security Emergency Management Department.

To be published by the Oak Hill Gazette Oct. 23, 2013

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