Emergency medical workers in Los Angeles are teaching children how to respond to a crisis through a project called the Junior Paramedic program.
The students at Mountain Avenue elementary school in the Los Angeles suburb of La Crescenta know all about paramedics. They see them on television as they rush to the scenes of accidents and disasters, using their skills and equipment to save lives.
Now, at the end of one week of training for about an hour each day, the students have developed some emergency skills of their own. On graduation day, an emergency worker tests their knowledge.
"The first thing you're going to do is…," she asks.
"Stay calm," the children respond, repeating the first rule for emergency situations. Rule two: Find an adult. Rule three: Call the emergency telephone number, 911, for help. Dispatchers will send an ambulance, fire truck, or police car as is needed.
An emergency medical technician shows the children what not to do. He runs in circles in an apparent panic.
The emergency worker appears to faint, and two children come forward to help him. They demonstrate how to help an unconscious victim, keeping his head still to prevent possible neck or spinal injuries, remaining calm as they look for help, and using a mobile phone to call 911.
Minutes later, two police cars, a fire truck and ambulances arrive.
The junior paramedic program was started four years ago by a teacher who worked evenings as an emergency technician. It is sponsored by a company called American Medical Response and gets support from the Los Angeles County sheriff's department and fire department, and the California Highway Patrol.
Children learn safety rules for riding in cars and using bicycles. They also learn about the human body systems for breathing and blood circulation, and how to recognize broken bones, slurred speech, and seizures. They are taught what is called the Heimlich maneuver, placing pressure on the abdomen to help a choking victim, and learn when the maneuver is needed and when it isn't. They are told how to relay information about a patient's condition to emergency dispatchers.
Los Angeles is a city of immigrants, and program spokesman Mike Reynolds says instructors face the challenge of teaching children from many cultures. Workbooks are printed for each school, often in several editions.
"We print them up for each school because we've been to some schools where we've not only had Spanish as a second language, but three different Asian dialects," he says. "So we get the whole program translated into whatever language or languages there are at those particular schools."
He says the children often serve as teachers for their parents, helping them prepare an emergency household plan for disasters such as fires or earthquakes.
Gracella Gibbs, principal of the Mountain Avenue School, says the program conveys important information in a way that children remember.
"They're very excited," she says. "[It's] obviously important subject matter, but whenever we can present that in a way that's engaging, they internalize it, remember it and use it. So I think that's the really important part about this program, it doesn't just bring them the information, but it brings it in a way that it will stay."
Joy McCreary, an eight-year-old student, is among many who say they enjoyed the program.
"It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot," she says.
Local officials are also excited about the program. Laura Olhasso, mayor of the neighboring city of La Canada-Flintridge, says a graduate in her city prevented a fire from spreading.
"A little girl playing in her backyard noticed a fire in an empty lot near her, and did exactly what she was supposed to do," she recalls. "She stayed calm, she ran in the house to find her mom, they called 911, the fire department came and put the fire out within an hour, and there was no damage to any property anywhere."
Kamaron Sardar, a supervisor with American Medical Response, says paramedics enjoy the program as much as the children do.
"This is an extra thing that our employees get to do, rather than working on an ambulance and responding on 911 calls, this allows them to come out of the field and be an instructor and learn how to instruct and work with the kids, which so many of them love to do. So it's exciting for them and for us," he notes.
The Junior Paramedic Program has taught 51,000 children in Los Angeles how to respond to an accident or a medical crisis. Program spokesman Mike Reynolds says officials in seven U.S. states outside California hope to get the program in their schools. Organizers hope to teach it across the United States eventually.