Students from all four schools put their skills to the test during mock emergency

The student-run experiential learning scenario gave Theatre Arts, Criminal Justice, Wilderness Medicine and Rescue, and Outdoor Recreation Management students a chance to show what they know

Five emergencies. Four academic programs. Two hours.  

One unforgettable experience. 

To an observer, it would seem as though South Campus had devolved into chaos on the afternoon of April 22: students were hanging from rock walls and collapsing from apparent stab wounds, a dead body appeared to be floating in a canoe on Wildcat Lake, rap music was blaring from an abandoned building on Hemlock Trail, and agonized screams were emanating from the bottom of a drainage ditch.  

What appeared to be perhaps the worst day in Lees-McRae history, however, was actually a carefully planned and choreographed mock disaster scenario designed to give students from all four of the college’s schools the chance to put their skills to the test in a realistic but controlled environment.  

The event was planned and executed by four students in the Outdoor Recreation Administration course. According to Associate Professor of Outdoor Recreation Management Katie Wall, knowing how to plan events and create programs is essential for anyone looking for a career in the outdoor recreation industry, and many college programs don’t do enough to prepare students for this role.  

“I had an events class in college, and all we did was talk about events,” Wall said. “I went and shadowed events, and watched, and that was it. I never got to do it. This is a high-stress class and it pushes them a bit, but I think it’s good that they’ll be able to put on their resume that they put on a significant event by themselves. I think it’s truly the only way you’re going to learn.” 

The mock disaster scenario was one of several options students in the class were able to choose from. A previous incarnation of the event was run by the Nursing program to prep future nurses for severe emergency situations. The experience was put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year, Outdoor Recreation Management (ORM) was asked to bring it back. This time, it would be bigger, involve more students from more disciplines, and be entirely student run.  

Other options for student projects in ORM 315 included running a trail-building and bouldering expedition, arranging to bring Earl Hunter Jr. to campus and get all ORM students Unity Blaze certified, and hosting a swimming and running duathalon. 

When it came to signing up for a project, the choice was obvious for ORM major Clay Adams.  

Adams, who graduated earlier this month, had participated in a mass casualty event during his EMT training and had loved the experience. His primary motivation for choosing the mock disaster group was replicating that energy for others in his program.  

“I wanted to plan something that I would want to do,” he said.  

Adams was joined by junior ORM major and Criminal Justice minor Finnbar Maloney, junior Wildlife Biology major and ORM minor Meredith Hall, and junior Wilderness Medicine and Rescue major and ORM minor Aiden Garner. Together, the four had to come up with a scenario that would provide experiential learning opportunities for students in the Outdoor Recreation Management, Wilderness Medicine and Rescue, Criminal Justice, and Theatre Arts programs.  

The planning process took most of the semester. The group coordinated with Campus Operations, Campus Police and Security, and the faculty from the relevant programs. They outlined a story with specific roles for each participant and drafted talking points for the students playing the various victims. They developed a risk management plan that accounted for all the moving pieces of the experience, mapped out the location of each emergency, and collected all the equipment needed for each phase of the event.  

According to Hall, the most difficult parts of the planning process were making sure that everyone had a part to play and that each scenario fit specific requirements.  

“It was interesting trying to come up with scenarios that involved both Wilderness Medicine and Rescue and Criminal Justice majors,” Hall said. “We had multiple meetings with the Criminal Justice professors and rewrote the scenarios multiple times until we had ones that everyone felt good about.” 

In the end, the group settled on a story about two brothers who operated a meth lab in a fictional state park. The brothers got into an argument with a fisherman at a nearby lake and went on a shooting spree, killing one bystander and injuring another. At the sound of the gunshots, the daughter of the shooting victims took off running, falling down a drainage ditch and suffering a compound fracture in her leg. The brothers then returned to their lab, encountering a pair of hikers along the way, one of whom they stabbed in the abdomen. At the same time this story was playing out, two uninvolved rock climbers were trapped on a wall and in urgent need of rescue and medical attention.  

As Wall succinctly put it, “it’s a very bad day for this park.”  

Theatre Arts students were assigned the roles of the victims, stranded climbers, and suspects. An hour before the scenario officially started, they gathered at Wildcat Lake to begin applying makeup for their fake injuries. Spirits were high as they took turns creating grisly wounds and rehearsing their lines.   

“We had the last show of our spring play last night, and all anyone could talk about was how excited they were to come do this the next day,” said Musical Theatre major LillyRuth Beck.  

Once Maloney had given the actors their instructions and assigned them to their locations, the call went out to the Criminal Justice and Wilderness Medicine and Rescue students. These students didn’t know the specifics of what they would encounter—they just knew someone at Wildcat Lake needed emergency attention.  

As the scenarios unfolded, each student participating performed their job to the best of their ability. The Wilderness Medicine and Rescue and Criminal Justice students serving as first responders didn’t flinch as the theatre students screamed, cried, and feigned going into shock. One theatre student said afterwards she was impressed with how well the first responders kept their composure: “They didn’t treat me like I was crazy, even though I was being crazy.”  

Throughout the experience, Maloney, Adams, and Garner were stationed at the various locations, giving directions and ensuring things went smoothly. Hall stayed at incident command alongside Executive Director of Campus Operations HD Stewart, Chief of Campus Police Brandon Greer, and several other students.  

“My favorite part was seeing everyone having fun and using the skills they had been learning in class at our event,” Hall said. “Even though I wasn’t at any of the big scenarios going on, it was still fun to listen to the students come back and talk about what they had done and what the patient was doing.” 

Once the scenarios at the lake, drainage ditch, hiking trail, and rock wall were concluded, the entire group gathered for the final event: the securing of the meth lab and arrest of the perpetrators.  

Armed with fake firearms, handcuffs, and protective gear, a group of around 10 Criminal Justice students entered the house and subdued the suspects. The theatre students playing the roles of the inhabitants were encouraged to resist arrest in any way they could without causing actual harm to the other participants. They did the job admirably, engaging in a fake shootout with the “officers” and attempting to the flee the scene. The Criminal Justice students were up to the task, however, and quickly secured the residence. The group actually ran through the scenario twice so that every Criminal Justice student could practice entering a crime scene.  

At this point, every student who had participated in the event, along with the different faculty who were assisting with the experience, was present and watching. Hall remembers looking around and being struck by how many people were there, taking part in something that she had made possible.  

“I couldn’t help but feel extremely proud of what my groupmates and I were able to pull off,” she said.  

The day concluded with a debrief session. Every student could share what they learned and discuss what they liked and didn’t like about the event. Criminal Justice major Dakotah Reny summed up the general feeling of the group when he said, “This was an experience unlike anything else on this campus, and I hope we do it again and again and again.”  

According to Wall, one of the main goals of the ORM 315 course is to have the students create something that will become “a legacy for the school,” like the on-campus disc golf course and the Adventure Park Learning Lab, both of which were implemented by former ORM students. The overwhelming success of the event, coupled with its focus on experiential learning, almost guarantees that the mock disaster scenario will continue to be a foundational event for students in the participating programs.  

By Emily WebbMay 21, 2024