By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2006 – Two of the founding members of a high school mock national security program met here today with the Defense Department's top homeland security defense official, discussing the findings of their program and what they learned.
Emily Blair, 17, of River Valley High School, Mohave County, Ariz., and Rolland Hartwick, 17, of Needles High School, Needles, Calif., are involved in an interactive homeland security class in which students learn about disaster response and participate in an exercise simulating a terrorist attack on their community. This program, in its second year, is the only homeland security-focused high school program in the country.
"I have met with high school students before, but this was the best session ever," Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said after meeting with Blair, Hartwick, and two of their teachers. "The scenario that was developed by these students reflected very realistically the kinds of terrorist threat that confronts our nation. They were pretty realistic in terms of just how bad it can be after a terrorist attack and what kinds of capabilities are required to begin the repair and remediation."
The one-year program the students went through was broken into three phases. In the first phase, they learned about homeland security and emergency response and designed emergency plans for their locale and for "Suburbia" - a fictitious city.
In the second phase, the students applied and revised the emergency plans to three case studies involving a natural disaster, a major accident and a terrorist attack. They also began designing a homeland security education kit with learning materials and activities for elementary and high schools.
In the third phase, the students prepared for and conducted a full-scale, near-real time exercise. They produced a term paper documenting the experience and recommending future actions. The exercise scenario was that during a national event, a small plane laden with unknown chemical or biological substances flew directly into the Hoover Dam. Both the Hoover Dam and Davis Dam collapsed, flooding local towns and washing away the event attendees, including the vice president, secretary of the interior and governors of California, Arizona and Nevada.
Today, the students explained their scenario, and the responses they developed to it, to McHale. McHale talked to them in-depth about the role of the Defense Department in homeland defense, and the relationship between the military and civilian first responders; like police officers.
McHale said he was impressed by the students, and by some of the creative solutions they developed to deal with the scenario. Their scenario resembles programs used within DoD for training, he noted.
"I think a program like this would be beneficial in every high school throughout the nation," he said. "The fact is that there are transnational terrorists who seek to do us harm, and given the opportunity, they will use weapons of mass destruction to try to kill Americans in a brutal way as they did on Sept. 11. ... These are very realistic threats, and I think although it is sobering to consider them, it is also essential that we think realistically not only about the threats we face today, but the kinds of terrorist threats that we will likely face over the next several decades."
After the meeting, Hartwick and Blair both said it was beneficial to talk to McHale and gain his perspective on their program. They were both excited about talking to an official who deals with real threats on a daily basis.
"He opened (our) eyes to the fact that what we do in our mock scenarios is actually real," Blair said. "The security -- everything that we work out -- is actually real, and a lot of (the students) realize it's real, but don't really take it into consideration every day, and these people here do."
Air Force Maj. Gen. Annette Sobel, director of intelligence for the National Guard Bureau and an instructor for the high school program, said that grassroots initiatives like this are essential to national security and homeland defense. Sobel got involved with the program through her civilian job as a national security analyst at Sandia Labs in New Mexico. Through her National Guard affiliation, she was able to show the students the state emergency operations center and give them an idea of what happens in a disaster scenario, she said.
"Initially, the kids were kind of wondering how this was going to help them," Sobel said. "Then they started realizing it helped them not only in understanding how they can play an active role as citizens and potentially as citizen-soldiers, ... they also began to understand the vulnerabilities of the communities in which they live and they wanted to protect. So they took on more of an ownership role, than just a passive role of 'The government's going to do things for me.'"
Even if the students involved in this program don't go on to careers related to national security, this experience gives them confidence and a clear understanding of the threats facing the country, Sobel said.
Hartwick and Blair, both seniors in high school, said they are involved in the program again this year, and will probably serve as leaders.