Shawnee Mission security leader envisions transforming maintenance facility into real-life training ground for emergency responder students

John Douglass with the fire engine the district obtained for $13,000 from a former police chief in San Jose, Calif., for use in Project Blue Eagle.

The Shawnee Mission School District’s Operations and Maintenance facility isn’t much to look at.

There’s a large building with four bays that hold district trucks and equipment. There’s a tall shed that stores salt for treating parking lots in the winter. And there’s an expansive stretch of grey concrete.

But to the district’s Director of Safety and Security John Douglass, the O & M facility is a blank campus on which he’s sketching out an intricate work that he hopes will become a model for public service career education in Johnson County and beyond.

Those cluttered maintenance bays?

“Imagine this,” Douglass said. “These bays are all cleaned out, with the floor polished up and the walls scraped down and our fire truck right here. That area up there, it’s all storage now, but it will be cleaned out, and we can use that for a bunk area…It’s just like a functioning fire station.”

The salt storage shed?

“We’ll be able to build scaffolding in here that will have stairs and platforms and those kinds of things, and they will be able to go in and run rescue operation drills,” he said.

If his plans come to fruition, the district’s Project Blue Eagle, which offers high school students training in public service careers like fire, police, law and paramedics, will provide real-life, hand-on experience like almost nowhere else in the country.

That’s a welcome bit of news to local law enforcement, fire and emergency response agencies, which have had a harder and harder time filling positions with qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds in recent years. In fact, the impetus for Project Blue Eagle came from a conversation Douglass had a few years ago with Lenexa City Administrator Eric Wade.

“It struck me that there are really good jobs in local government, working for the police or for fire or other agencies,” Wade said. “But I’m not sure many kids at that age really know about them and what they are all about.”

Douglass worked with Assistant Superintendent Innovation and Performance Christy Ziegler to develop a signature program curriculum around these public service professions with the goal of not only providing students with training that would put them in a position to take jobs not long out of high school, but also helping expose them to the realities of these jobs before they decided whether or not they wanted to make it a career.

The program has quickly gained traction. Last school year, the inaugural run for Project Blue Eagle, more than 600 students took part in the classes. This year, Douglass expects 2,000 or so to be enrolled. Students who complete the full firefighting and EMT programs will eventually be able to test into placements with local agencies after their 19th birthdays. Students in the police training program would need to wait until they are 21 to get a law enforcement job, but will get a good sense of what it means to be a police officer before deciding whether to make it a career.

“That’s exposure that we hope will get these kids to understand everything that goes into these professions,” he said. “We may have kids in the firefighting program where we run a drill where they’re in the bunks and the alarm goes off at 3 in the morning. If you you hate being woken up by a fire alarm like that, you’ll find out, and maybe realize it’s not what you thought.”

Douglass said his vision is to transform the O & M facility, which sits adjacent to Westridge Middle School, into a real life training ground where kids in all of the Project Blue Eagle programs — from fire to EMT to forensics — can train together and see how all the agencies interact.

“You learn that it’s all a ballet out there, and that everybody has a role,” he said. “It’s all a balance, it all works together.”

For Wade, the early success of Project Blue Eagle has been gratifying.

“I think that pursuing a career where you’re doing something that helps people will be really compelling to a lot of students,” he said. “Maybe not a lot of these students actually make it their career. But if even 5 percent of them are really interested, that’s big.”