Be Prepared for the Unexpected: Rowan University’s Wilderness First Responder Course

Rowan Health and Physical Education major Gabriel Sherry treats another student in a scenario in Rowan's Wilderness First Responder course.

Today we take you outdoors with the Wilderness First Responder class, led by Dr. Shari Willis, within the School of Nursing & Health Professions.

In a simulated training sequence for the Rowan University course Wilderness First Responder, a wooded area on campus serves as an isolated, high-altitude patch of the Colorado mountains. Here, students must determine the critical next steps when finding one hiker shivering, another dizzy and fatigued and a third with a fractured bone. 

With six miles left on this hike, students must quickly gauge each situation and treat the individuals before EMTs can reach them.

Dr. Shari Willis and students in the Wilderness First Responder course treat a student during an outdoor scenario.

Wilderness First Responder trains students to assess and offer aid for those who are ill or injured, often in remote locations. The course, a blend of short lecture and outdoor scenarios, culminates in Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification upon passing an exam. 

The class and certification give students the tools and training to serve as summer camp leaders, adventure guides and outdoor educators; above all, it equips those with a love of the outdoors the skills to help when emergencies arise and care is quickly needed at the scene.

Dr. Shari Willis, associate professor for Health and Exercise Science and co-coordinator of the B.S. in Public Health and Wellness program, launched the course at Rowan University in spring 2019 to complement adventure coursework and in response to student feedback.

Dr. Shari Willis works with students during an outdoor scenario.
Dr. Shari Willis (center) went through a full year of licensing, including co-teaching Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder in three states, to earn certification in order to teach the course at Rowan University.

“We envisioned a beloved class — I think it’s a beloved class,” Dr. Willis says. “I teach Adventure and Experiential Learning, which is HES 109. And students always were asking, ‘Hey, is there a second adventure class? What else can I do?’ So we created a CUGS [Certificate of Undergraduate Study] in Adventure Education Leadership. And we embedded this class in because it’s really important if you’re going to be on adventures to be prepared for things that go wrong, in case somebody gets hurt. So there are four classes, and this is the third class in that CUGS.”

Dr. Willis points to a few reasons students take the course. Some students are completing the CUGS in Adventure Education Leadership. Others are taking the course as it’s also part of a Search and Rescue CUGS offered through the Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management program. Students in camp counselor or trip leader positions enroll in the class for the skills and Wilderness First Responder certification; Dr. Willis says camps are “requiring more and more counselors to have the WFR certification or wilderness first aid.”

Gabriel Sherry is one such student, seeking his WFR certification for work leading trips at a summer camp in New York state. He says his favorite part of the class is the hands-on experience with treating injuries.

“Making the hypo wrap, which is bundling somebody up so that they can avoid hypothermia, was very interesting,” he says. “But knowing all these injuries, and being able to take care of them, is something that I think is very, very good. Just in case it comes up when I’m hiking in the future.

Rowan University student Gabriel Sherry goes over notes with Dr. Shari Willis.
Gabriel Sherry speaks with Dr. Shari Willis during the hike emergency scenario.

“I definitely feel more prepared than I would have been before taking this class,” adds the Health and Physical Education major. “I know exactly what to do in order to not only make sure that the person I’m taking care of is taken care of properly, but also to make sure that I’m safe in doing it.”

Dr. Willis stresses that in addition to her teaching about what goes wrong when someone’s sick or injured, Wilderness First Responder is “really a thinking class.”

She explains: “We have to process and we have to decide what is happening, what we can do to make it better, and if we need to evacuate a person. It really is this process of bringing in all the facts to make a good, informed decision of what is happening. And I think that’s one of the most important aspects of the class, because that goes into every aspect of life.”

Gabriel Sherry works with another WFR student during the outdoor scenario.
Gabriel Sherry (right) checks in with another student during the outdoor scenario; she presents with symptoms that Gabriel must determine is hypothermia.

The course has received positive feedback from former students, including some who went on to intern for the Philadelphia Outward Bound School, the local chapter of a national outdoor learning expedition nonprofit, according to Dr. Willis. She hopes more students who either work in or simply enjoy the outdoors consider becoming Wilderness First Responders, too.

“I’m really hoping it grows just because it’s such an exciting area,” she says. “And I know that there’s so much cool technology, but that still doesn’t help the issue of sometimes we can’t get to people where they’re injured. And sometimes it’s still carrying them out on a litter [a rescue basket], and it’s still trying to figure out how to cross a stream or to make sure that they are ok until they’re out.”

See our video with the Wilderness First Responder class here:

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Select photos by:
Joseph Conte, junior community planning major

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