Frustrated with arriving at these incidents too late to make a difference, firefighters Steve Zimmerman and Larry Cockman decided to develop a program to “show” teens the real ending to the story in an effort to prevent these accidents in the future. The first program was delivered at Northeast Guilford High School. To date the program has been delivered on 103 occasions, reaching 66,167 students with a strong message about teen driver safety.
The mission of the VIP for a VIP Program is to bring the sight, sounds, and smell of a fatal vehicle accident to high school students in a dramatic way in hopes of embedding the consequences of these often senseless events into the minds of teenage drivers. The program is directed by a core team of firefighters from the Greensboro, High Point, Pinecroft-Sedgefield, and Eden fire eepartments that use their time off to take the program to high schools across North Carolina.
Convoying down the highway with three tractor trailers and a few individual vehicles, the program arrives with all the equipment to deliver its strong prevention message. Local fire, EMS, police, state highway patrol and N.C. Wildlife agencies in the area of the host school play important roles in the program. From experience, these agencies know the vulnerability of teen drivers and stand committed to help demonstrate the true consequences of a moment of inattention.
The VIP for a VIP programs are usually scheduled in the spring and fall near prom and homecoming events. Mid-March to the end of May and mid-September to the end of October usually provide reasonable weather to allow the outside portion of the program. There is no cost to the hosting school. Once the school commits, the VIP team travels to the host school to meet with school staff and members from each of the local emergency response agencies to plan the program.
Each program is tailored to the school, using a familiar address, dispatch of local agencies, incorporating local accident photos into the video presentation, etc. Handout material that goes home with the students is also customized to the school, acknowledging the specific loss of students due to accidents, and includes an excerpt from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul titled,“Dead at 17” and a “VIP contract for life” that the student and their parent sign and return to school. The contract asks the student to call the parent if they find themselves in a bad situation rather than taking a chance to drive home or ride with others that may be reckless or impaired. In return the parent agrees if they call for help they will go get them without making a scene to make sure the student gets home safely.
On the morning of the program, a memorial vehicle is placed at the front entrance of the school to set the tone for the day’s program. The VIP for a VIP program has three vehicles that teens were killed in that the parents have given to the program for use as a visible testimony of the consequences of a poor driving decision.
Preparation for the morning session begins around 7:00 a.m. The VIP team and local help unload and set up equipment in the auditorium. We bring a 12 foot screen and projector, a sound system with speakers and microphones, casket and sprays, everything we need to make the presentation. With the equipment set up, practice with the school ROTC begins. Team members rehearse a routine with them where they march in, set the sprays, uncover a casket, and march out. A spot light is set up and used to illuminate special parts of the morning session.
The morning session of the VIP for a VIP program, which lasts about an hour, brings students to the auditorium where the VIP director opens the program with his “choices and consequences” talk — about making good decisions in life. It’s not just about driving impaired and speeding, but also about avoiding the distractions that capture the attention of these new drivers for the few seconds that it takes to cause an accident. Cell phones, texting, multiple young passengers, and inexperience also contribute to vehicle crashes that represent 40 percent of all teen fatalities.
Again, almost half of the teens that die, die in automobiles. A panel of speakers from the local emergency services talks for two minutes each about their experiences, their role at teen car crashes, and how these events effect their personnel after the fact. It’s sad that they always have a true story to share. A parent of a teen accident victim shares their story of being notified, identifying their son or daughter, and living with an empty chair at the table.
The students then view two video presentations that illustrate how teen accidents impact their families and friends. Clips of actual vehicle crashes, including local incident photos we add, play as a slide show with the song “If I Die Young” playing in the background, reiterating the fact that these bad accidents do happen in their community, not always somewhere else.
The director of the morning session reviews statistics on the screen that further show the teen driver’s undeniable vulnerability. The presentation is direct from the real world, graphic and true. The morning session closes with a student’s poem set to video and a memorial where the school ROTC honor guard marches in to uncover a casket down front revealing the ultimate consequence of a poor driving decision.
Following the morning session, the AV equipment set up for the morning session in the auditorium is taken down and moved to the outside session location. A lunch is provided for all the emergency service members that will be participating in the outside session. During lunch, the script for the afternoon session is read and discussed by the VIP program staff. Afterwards, apparatus placement and roles are further explained during dry run practices. The teen victim dons a body suit with abdominal and left arm injuries and receives a face lift that yields a very realistic crash victim dripping blood. A smoke cartridge is wired under the hood to simulate the smoke and steam present at these crashes.
The afternoon session usually begins around 2 p.m., and lasts about 30 minutes. The students, averaging 500, are assembled on bleachers outside to observe a reenactment of a fatal automobile accident. Once assembled, a VIP program director talks candidly about how tragic accidents affect not only them, but also families, schoolmates, and even the emergency responders. In a loving way, he captures their attention with the “what if it were you” story that can happen right here in their communities, not other places, not other people. The session continues as a local police officer drives in and gets out to read a detailed report of what happens when a driver not wearing a seatbelt hits a tree at 55 m.p.h. As the officer departs, a covering is removed revealing a smoking auto with a teen driver slumped over the steering wheel, arm hanging out the window dripping blood. A broken utility pole is embedded into the front of the mangled car with the rest of the broken pole protruding from the windshield. A jogger runs into the area and discovers the accident.
Over the speakers, the students hear his call to 911, followed by the dispatch of local police, fire and ambulance units. They also hear the voice of the teenage driver saying that “I’m alright, just help me out of the car.” Later they will realize that this is the teen’s soul speaking and that the accident had taken his life on impact.
Emergency units arrive and find the patient pinned in the vehicle and begin cutting the car door and roof out of the way to get the teen victim out. Once out, rescuers perform CPR, a firefighter holds up an IV attached to the victims arm, and paramedics simulate administering cardiac drugs and shock the victim using old style paddles. The teen’s mom and dad arrive, horn blowing, having been called to the scene by one of the firefighters who arrived to find out that the teen victim was his best friend’s son.
There is not a dry eye on the scene as mom rushes to her son’s side screaming, “Please don’t let my baby die!” Dad holds his son’s arm in disbelief as the victim’s soul explains all the mistakes he had made causing the accident and apologizing for the damage to the car.
The students hear the live call of the paramedic to the hospital detailing what they have done to try to save the teens life and asking for further instructions. The hospital answers back that they have done all that they can and to discontinue efforts and transport the body to the morgue.
Hearing this, mom again pleads with responders to save her son in a heart wrenching way that many emergency service personnel know too well. The firefighters and paramedics place the teen in a body bag on the stretcher and zip the bag as mom continues to plead for them to help him. The stretcher is moved to the rear of the ambulance with mom and dad right behind. The voice of the teen pleads ,“I can’t be dead, I’m only 17,” as the ambulance doors close and the unit pulls away leaving mom and dad crying.
The student’s attention is drawn to two students who step forward from the bleachers to place a cross in front of the car as a roadside memorial, standing somberly in front for a few seconds before returning to their seat in the bleachers. Mom and dad walk by the cross stopping briefly to touch the cross, leaving bloody fingerprints as they walk off site.
The VIP director closes the afternoon session asking “will there be a white cross in this schools future?” Statistics say it can easily happen here. He holds up a photo or recent newspaper article that confirms this fact as he charges the students with being responsible. Among his many comments, he asks “did you tell your parents that you loved them before you left this morning?”
Closing the afternoon session, he asks students to put I.C.E in their phone contact list. This “In Case of Emergency” contact listing can provide helpful contact information as well as medical history, allergies, etc. A school staff member dismisses the students who often walk over to the crash car to get a closer look. VIP team members answer their questions and talk more about these tragic accidents. The looks on their faces, some tearing, further validate the efforts and effects of the program.
While we cannot quantatively measure the effect that the program has on teen death statistics, the comments and observations say that it’s making a difference in teen driving behaviors and attitudes, ultimately reducing the statistics of teen deaths in the areas where the VIP for a VIP programs are delivered.
A pre and post-program questionnaire is administered to a sample of 10 students that often reflects this change in behavior as they pledge that they will always use seat belts, limit the number of teen passengers, control distractions in the vehicle they are driving, and call for help rather than driving impaired.
One of the biggest indicators for us is watching large groups of teens brought to silence during the program, all focused on the message being delivered. After the program, teens often come by and express thanks to the staff and emergency responders.
The program receives many letters from students, teachers, and parents who take time to write about changes they see in their kids and students. Visit our Facebook page has served well as an interface for feedback engaging over 8,000 fans who, in their comments, further testify to the programs impact on students.
The program has received awards from the NC Fire and Life Safety Association and from N.C. MADD.
While the VIP for a VIP program survives financially by donations and grant awards, we have enjoyed self sufficiency largely due to the dedication of the core members of the program who have volunteered their time, and personal funds when necessary over the years, to make the program free to the schools. We have been overwhelmed with support from emergency service workers across North Carolina as they participate in the delivery of the program in their communities.
As awareness of the program and requests began increasing, the program was incorporated in August 2007 to allow support by grants and donations for the equipment needed to make the program “mobile” to travel beyond the Guilford County area. We have been blessed with support to be able to purchase the necessary equipment and props that we formerly borrowed.
A 37 foot program trailer transports the audio-visual equipment and props. Two mobile bleacher systems seat the 600 students for the afternoon re-enactment outside. With the equipment needed bought and paid for and a volunteer staff, we feel the operating costs such as fuel, insurance, printing, accounting, etc will be easily met by continued financial support we have enjoyed in the past, as we dedicate ourselves to the program’s success.
As the program has become more well known, requests have increased to a point that it is challenging the current core team’s ability to deliver. A second delivery team is being developed to help meet the increasing demand. Anyone interested in being a part of this effort are encouraged to attend one of the scheduled programs and meet our team.