Live wires dangled from the ceiling of the theater. One victim lay on the floor unconscious from an electrical shock while a second was awake but suffering from a serious puncture wound. Music blared in the dimly lit theater, adding to the anxiety.

It was a high-stakes, high-stress situation that would overwhelm most adults.

In this case, nearly 100 high school students training to be emergency first responders jumped into action, triaging the two mock victims as judges scrutinized their every move at the Minnesota Youth Emergency Care Competition.

The annual competition was started 28 years ago by high school health occupation teachers. Today, students from three high school programs — in Osseo, Spring Lake Park and Forest Lake — compete. Students from 13 schools feed into these programs.

Osseo High health occupation teacher Gary Leafblad said the sense of urgency created in competition helps kids learn and gain confidence.

“You have to have something to work toward,” Leafblad said. “When they compete, they have a purpose and direction.”

“It’s a dose of reality and a significant chunk of stress,” said Spring Lake Park teacher Bill Neiss. “Often, they find they know more than they thought they did, and they can deal with the stress.”

The students are all enrolled in high school medical courses and some receive state EMT certification at age 18. About a dozen students receive EMT certification at Osseo High each year. At Spring Lake Park, the number varies between five and 20.

Hands-on high school courses also help teens figure out before college whether they’d like to pursue a medical career.

At the annual event, students compete in groups of four. They respond to three different scenarios and are scored by professionals in the medical and emergency response fields. Volunteer students and CPR dummies serve as victims.

This year, Spring Lake Park High School was the host site. In addition to the theater scenario, students responded to a pool rescue scenario where they performed CPR for 15 minutes, and a mock fire scenario involving a mother, an infant and an ailing firefighter.

Changes each year

Competition organizers change the scenarios each year, adding surprise twists and turns. One year, students had to rescue a victim pinned under a portable toilet. Most of the teams failed to check inside, where there was a second victim.

Another year, students helped a pregnant woman in labor while the panicked father fell and broke his leg. Students had to deliver the baby, cutting the umbilical cord and clear the newborn’s airway.

To prepare for the competition, students practice in class and during evening sessions. They also shadow EMTs at the Twin Cities Mara­thon, USA Soccer Cup tournament in Blaine and other local events to get real-world experience.

Watching things unfold

The day of the competition, parents and other ­spectators are allowed to observe.

Chuck Holien was one of those there, watching his son Nick perform during the pool rescue. The dad was a particularly interested observer after a real-life drama last fall.

Holien, 46, was suffering chest pains the weekend before Thanksgiving. He assumed it was just anxiety. His son, enrolled in Osseo High School’s EMT class, told him to go to the hospital to check for a possible heart attack. Holien credits that with saving his life: Doctors confirmed that he’d suffered a heart attack.

“I would probably just have continued on. I hadn’t been to a doctor in six years,” Holien said.

Mackenzie Cook, a senior at Spring Lake Park High School, was in her second year in the competition. She and her classmates also took part in the pool rescue scenario.

“That was a big challenge, doing the pool,” she said.

Cook, who is headed to the University of Minnesota Duluth this fall, said she’s pursuing a career in the medical field. Her high school EMT training offered a dose of reality, she said: “Last year, we learned about IVs and I fainted.”

Kim Crane competed in the critical care competition two decades ago. It led to a medical career. Crane works at Hennepin County Medical Center. She watched her son, Park Center senior Alex Winkelman, compete.

“Even if you don’t go into the medical field, it gives you life experience,” Crane said. “It makes you willing to step up in any situation. It gives you the confidence to step up and do the right thing.”