Middle school students participate in team-building activities as part of Disaster READY training this week at an Aurora school. Photo/Sarah Linn.

It’s not like terrorists don’t hang out in Aurora, Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Matt Packard reminded the young disaster-readiness trainees sprawled before him on mats on the gym floor at Aurora Quest K-8, a charter school.

After all, Najibullah Zazi was arrested last September at his Aurora apartment, not a dozen miles from the school. Zazi later acknowledged being an al-Qaeda operative conspiring to blow up the New York City subway system.

“It was what he was doing right here in Aurora that tipped us off,” said Packard, who is supervisor in the Colorado Information Analysis Center, a state agency that’s a sort of early warning system for suspected terrorist attacks, natural disasters and large-scale criminal activity.

“He bought chemicals you can mix together to make a bomb. He was acquiring stuff that’s perfectly legal to have, but he was combining them to make a bomb,” Packard told his young audience. “Say you see someone with 50 boxes of cold medicine. Does that seem normal?”

Find out more:

* To learn how to pack a 72-hour emergency kit, click here.

* For tips on making an emergency plan for pets, click here.

* For information on enrolling in the Disaster READY Training for high school students, click here.

* To learn about other emergency preparedness classes available in Colorado, click here.

The students agreed that it did not. Ditto for someone taking photos or drawing diagrams of buildings or infrastructure, or for uniformed workmen showing up without an appointment and asking for access to equipment, or for someone needlessly calling 911 then clocking how long it takes police to arrive.

“I learned terrorists could be anywhere,” 11-year-old Alex Richmond later said. “They could even be my best friend.”

“I saw a man wearing a winter coat once, when it wasn’t winter,” noted 12-year-old Jose Puente. He said if he ever spotted anything suspicious like that again, he’d know who to call.

Disasters come in many forms, both natural and human-made, but learning how to prepare for them can make the difference between living and dying. And youngsters are never too young to start thinking about what to do and what to avoid in an emergency. That’s the philosophy behind Disaster READY Training, a collaboration  of READYColorado, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and the City and County of Denver.

On Tuesday, nearly 40 middle school students from around the metro area got a day’s worth of instruction, not just in anti-terrorism tactics but also in first aid, CPR, family and pet preparedness, weather spotting and team building. An expanded four-day training will be offered July 20-23 to interested high school students at the Denver Police Academy. The training is free, though enrollment is limited.

“These are lifelong skills that we’re empowering them with,” said Cathy Prudhomme, Community Preparedness Program Manager for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security. “The first aid and the safety training is stuff they can use on a day-to-day basis.”

“I think middle schoolers are wonderfully impressionable,” said Deborah Collburn, director of the Animal Emergency Management Program for the Colorado Veterinary Medical Foundation. Collburn was there to teach the youngsters how to prepare their pets in case their families were forced to evacuate from their home.

Watch a video

Click here to watch a video of middle school students learning to give CPR during Disaster READY training.

“They bring things home with them and share them with their parents. Reaching out to kids is a great way to change behaviors. Kids will nag you to death,” she said. “And kids are passionate about their animals. They may be willing to leave their brother or sister behind, but they’ll make sure they have a plan for their pets.”

The youngsters learned how to pack a “72-hour kit,” an easy-to-carry container filled with all the things they and their pets would need if they were forced to flee from their home. In it: non-perishable food, a flashlight, first aid items, medications, a battery-operated radio, some small hand tools, a change of clothing, personal hygiene items and money, among other things.

“We hope to do this in more schools next year,” said Collburn, of the pilot project. “We hope to see these kids being leaders in their schools when they go back in the fall.”

Denver Police Captain Jennifer Steck, program manager for READYColorado, said that while the middle schoolers may be too young to perform strenuous CPR, they’re not too young to prove valuable assets in an emergency.

“Thing of any disaster we’ve had, and kids were there,” she said. “Police won’t get there until after the fact. With a little bit of information and training, these kids can save people’s lives – and they do, every day.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.