The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 21, 2013

Scary environment turns into a safety-centered one

By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer

LAKE CRYSTAL — A siren suddenly pierced the already noisy and chaotic Lake Crystal fire house, sending Carynn Krebs’ face into her mother’s shoulder and her hands tightly over her ears.

It can be a shocking and scary sound for any child, but the students touring the fire department Monday have autism and other disabilities. For them, Krebs’ mother, Tammy Altepeter explained, hearing sirens and seeing flashing lights surrounded by people dressed in odd looking fire gear with frightening-looking air masks can be a traumatic experience.

With a visit to the Lake Crystal Fire Department and ambulance building, Krebs, 4, and other students like her had a chance to experience it all in a safe environment.

They tried on fire suits. They hit the switch that made the siren blare. With the help of a firefighter, students from St. Peter High School’s “Room 329 Rocks” class had a chance to aim and shoot water from a fire hose. Members of the ambulance crew tucked students into a gurney and lifted them into an ambulance.

The class, headed up by lead teacher Jeanne Madsen, serves students from several communities in Nicollet, Le Sueur and Blue Earth counties. High school students attend classes in St. Peter. Elementary classes are in St. Clair. Krebs is in a class of preschool students from Lake Crystal

The event was organized by Gary Reed, assistant Lake Crystal fire chief. His wife, Julie, drives a van that takes Altepeter’s son, Christopher Hansen, to school in St. Peter.

“I’ve been bugging Gary for awhile to do this,” Altepeter said. “When rescuers show up at a fire, kids with disabilities run and hide because they’re scared. This helps them learn not to be scared.”

Just as importantly, Altepeter and Reed said, Monday’s event also helped firefighters and ambulance crew members learn how to deal with children with autism. They were learning, with the right approach, they would have the ability to help calm someone with autism at a fire, automobile crash or any other emergency situation and keep them safe.

“You have to be calm in every aspect when you’re working with kids with disabilities,” Altepeter said. “They get huge lessons being around these kids. They see how they react to things and know that they’re human. Everyone is different in their own way, they just wanted to be treated the same.”

When Cody Seifert of Henderson was hauled into the ambulance Monday, he got a chance to experience something he watched mother go through not too long ago. Seifert had to come to the rescue when his mother had an allergic reaction to a bee or wasp sting.

“I went and called 911 and told them where I was,” Seifert said.

Madsen watched as Seifert had his turn in the ambulance. She said another benefit to the event is her students had a chance to meet new people and learn social skills for everyday life. They were interacting, communicating and having fun.

The fun part was solidified with a trip to the Lake Crystal Area Recreation Center for pizza and swimming.

“This will be a topic of conversation for months,” Madsen said.

Reed said he is hoping other area fire departments think about hosting similar events. He wasn’t sure what to expect Monday and was happy to see things run smoothly with help from his crew, teachers from the school and parents.

Dave Carlson, one of several firefighters who helped out, said he was enjoying the morning as much as the students. It was his job to help kids shoot water from a hose at a spinning target.

“For me, this is just a fun day,” he said.