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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

First Responders Guide Pittsburgh Students Through Fictitious Mass Shooting

Two men rob a convenience store in Beaver County, killing the clerk in the process. They steal a car and head to Raccoon Creek State Park, where they open fire on beach-goers with automatic rifles.

This was the imaginary scenario that criminal justice and nursing students from Pittsburgh Technical Institute encountered Wednesday morning at a live disaster response exercise staged on park shores.

The scene was chaotic as students arrived. Earlier in the morning, a makeup artist had painted realistic gunshot wounds on more than a dozen volunteer actors who lay scattered across the beach, some unconscious, others begging for help.

“The only way to really give them this real-life experience is to move it outside,” said Scott Domowicz, the institute's academic chair of criminal justice. “Do it big, do it bold, involve the actual law enforcement and emergency service agencies (and) get them involved in helping to teach the next generation that’s coming up.”

Pennsylvania State Troopers were on hand to guide criminal justice students as they processed the crime scene and collected evidence, while nursing students received advice from Beaver County Emergency Medical Services personnel.

“Take some deep breaths for me,” nursing student Lydia Durrett told one of the imaginary victims as she cleaned her wound. “I’m here to help you.”

Durrett said she wasn’t fazed by the pandemonium of the crime scene.

“As a nurse, you never know what you’re going to walk into,” Durrett said. “You could have someone who’s perfectly stable and crashing the next minute, so you always have to be on your feet.”

Students had to assess each victim’s wounds and prioritize care, knowing that some people required immediate care while others could wait. Some victims in critical condition “died” on the scene. Others were cleaned up, bandaged and sent to the hospital.

After survivors were cleared from the scene, criminal justice students formed a long line at one end of the crime scene, about two arms’ length away from each other. Under the direction of an instructor, students took one long step forward scanning the immediate area for evidence. When a student spotted something, he or she yelled “stop,” while another student planted a yellow evidence flag.

Evidence included guns, magazine clips, the stolen vehicle, multiple dead bodies, a bloody baseball bat and footprints in the sand.

But Domowicz said the training wasn’t just about giving students the necessary technical experience.

“It’s my experience that as much as we try to tell them what it’s like to be in the field and to experience this type of a disaster, you really don’t know how you’re going to react emotionally until you’re faced with that situation,” he said.

This is the first time PTI has staged such an event, but Domowicz said he hopes to repeat the training exercise annually.