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Michigan Students STEP into Emergency Preparedness Teaching at Home

Student Tools for Emergency Planning program aims to educate fifth-grade students and their parents.

by / November 10, 2014
A student makes a map of evacuation routes in her home and neighborhood as part of the STEP program. (Michelle Collins/FEMA)

Michigan fifth-grade students are getting more than reading, writing and arithmetic. For the last three years students have become better prepared to weather a disaster or emergency, thanks to the Student Tools for Emergency Planning (STEP) program, which has taken off in the state.

STEP (PDF) is a FEMA-sponsored program designed to teach kids the basics of emergency preparedness with the hopes that they’ll go home and teach mom and dad. Why fifth-graders? It seems they’re the most apt to go home and get their parents involved.

“Basically FEMA did a study and found fifth-grade students were the perfect age to embrace and take ownership about emergencies. And they’re pretty pushy with their parents in getting the message out to them,” said Wendy Galbreath, state preparedness officer with the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division of the Michigan State Police.

The program has been a big hit with teachers and students. In 2012, the first year in Michigan, 350 students participated. Last year the number grew to 3,700, and for 2014 the number was up to 5,500 kids.

Principals make the call to sign up their schools and in so doing promise that their teachers will conduct up to eight hours of curriculum, according to Galbreath. Just one hour of instruction is needed to participate in the program and thus receive the goodies, including homework handouts and a backpack containing an emergency blanket, whistle, flashlight and extra batteries for the flashlight.

The homework consists of developing a family communications plan to be completed as a family. Classroom work includes viewing a video, called The Adventures of the Disaster Dudes, during which students discuss with the instructor the kinds of disasters that might hit the local area and the importance of having supplies like food and water on hand, along with the importance of having a communication plan.

The video tells of the story of Tilly Smith, a 10-year-old British girl who saved hundreds of beach-goers by warning them of the impending tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. She had learned of tsunamis two weeks earlier in school.

“The first thing is getting through to them how important it is to be prepared but it’s taking it home as well,” Galbreath said. “As preparedness officers, it’s our goal that everybody learns the importance of being prepared, and we find that if we get it to them at this level, this early in life, it’s something that’s going to carry them through.”

She said kids and families often take their efforts a step further and add to their preparedness capabilities after having participated in the program.

“We really want them to have the general knowledge of disasters that could come to their areas,” Galbreath said. “We want them to assemble kits with their families and complete plans with their families.”

The course can be taught by a regular teacher or schools can ask a volunteer, such as a local first responder or in Michigan’s case, a community service trooper.

“We’re fortunate in Michigan to have some 30 community service troopers whose job is community outreach and education,” Galbreath said. “So when I get schools who say ‘we really don’t have time,’ I’ll reach out to the community service troopers. The kids love them, standing up there in their uniforms.”

Galbreath said the program is free to the students and that Target provided a substantial grant to help keep it going.

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at

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