The best way for children to stay safe and protect others, according to Gretchen Erickson, is to harness their superpowers.
“It would be great if we had a forcefield around us to protect us,” she told a group of fifth graders Thursday. “But we do have a superpower. What is the first thing a baby does when it’s born?”
The students called out: “It cries!”
“Babies learn very quickly how to use their superpower voice,” she said. “[Your voice] is your power, too.”
Erickson, the fire safety educator for the Umatilla County Fire District, visits most elementary school classrooms in the Hermiston School District once a month. She spends most of her half-hour lesson teaching them how to keep themselves, and others, safe in various situations.
Thursday’s lesson, to a group of Rocky Heights Elementary School students, wasn’t about fire, but about using their voices to speak up — to help someone else or to resist peer pressure.
Erickson told students that it’s important to stand up for themselves. She also taught students that while reporting something they see another person doing wrong may feel like tattling, there’s a difference.
“When someone comes to the police station and reports that their car has been stolen, is that tattling or reporting?” she asked. “Police couldn’t do anything without reporting — there wouldn’t be a job.”
Erickson was an officer with the Hermiston Police Department for 23 years, and taught in the schools in that capacity as well. She has worked in schools for UCFD since 2004.
“As a police officer, it was more about crime — shoplifting, assault,” she said. “Now it’s more about protection. Protecting yourself and your family.”
In her safety lessons, Erickson said she tries to work in ideas to try to get students to draw their own conclusions.
“When I give the example of starting the car in the garage, that’s carbon monoxide poisoning,” she said. “When you talk about Grandpa’s new gun, that’s gun safety. I try to weave in lessons to help kids make the connections without me giving them the recipe, so to say.”
She spends a lot of time on fire safety, teaching students about the different ways house fires can start, the importance of having a smoke detector in their bedroom, and how to avoid smoke, which she calls “floating poison.”
Erin Andreason, a Rocky Heights teacher, said Erickson has been visiting her class for about 10 years.
“The students are always very excited to hear the message she’ll be sending,” she said. “She has done lessons on the importance of having a family plan in case of fire, making sure they have an emergency contact, flagging down fire and police outside.”
She said Erickson has stressed to students the importance of basic safety knowledge, like having their addresses memorized in order to tell emergency officials if they need help.
Erickson’s lessons span pedestrian and car safety, and water safety in the warmer months. But no matter the subject, all her lessons drive home one point.
“Pay attention,” Erickson said. “That’s the most important safety rule.”