Community Emergency Response Teams assist professional responders when disaster strikes

When a large disaster occurs, local emergency response agencies may be overwhelmed and unable to immediately meet the needs of those affected. Trained volunteers can safely provide support to victims until emergency responders arrive.

In a large-scale emergency, first responders who provide fire services and medical attention may find they cannot handle the number of victims needing immediate assistance. Furthermore, other obstacles such as impassible roads and overloaded or inoperable phone lines may hinder the ability of emergency personnel to reach those who are most in need of their services. When victims have life-threatening injuries or are trapped in situations that put their life at risk, it is especially critical to have trained individuals available to provide immediate assistance until professionals from response agencies can arrive.

The idea of creating teams of trained volunteers was first discussed and eventually initiated by the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) in the mid-1980s. Faced by devastating earthquakes and wildfires, other areas of California followed suit. By 1993, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) implemented a nationwide program for training Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) teams. By 2012, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands had active CERT programs in place.

Currently, over 2,500 communities across the country have formed and registered a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Check the CERT website to see if there is a team near you. If there is no CERT in your area, consider taking steps to encourage your community to form one.

How does one start a local CERT? First, it requires a partnership between community members and local government, emergency management and response agencies. Generally, a local government agency such as a fire department or an emergency management organization will sponsor a CERT. Congress provides funds to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Citizen Corps to sponsor five very different volunteer programs, including CERT, that support the efforts of first responders. Federal and state grant funds are often available to assist local entities with the cost of training volunteers and maintaining their CERT. In other cases, communities have employed a variety of funding approaches including forming a 501(c)3 non-profit organization to raise funds for their CERT’s continued operation.

Professional first responders with the skills and knowledge provide essential training to team volunteers. Most often, 2 ½ hour-long sessions are offered one evening per week for at least seven weeks. Topics addressed include disaster preparedness, safe fire suppression, typical disaster medical operations, light search and rescue, and psychological symptoms that might be experienced during disasters by both victims and workers. Additional topics and sessions may be offered if the local community thinks they are needed.

There are a variety of roles one can play as a member of a CERT. Each member is trained to assume all the needed roles as not all members may be available to respond during a particular disaster. Once basic training is complete, CERT members continue to take periodic refresher courses, participate in drills, offer neighborhood cleanup days or disaster education fairs to share valuable information with others while maintaining their own level of knowledge and skills.

Other organizations, such as Michigan State University Extension, while not directed involved in disaster response, offer helpful information about preparing for and recovering from a disaster. If you do not find the answer to your question on MSU Extension’s website, you can contact one of their experts for a recommendation about post-disaster issues including food safety, home clean-up, salvaging damaged gardens and crops, and concerns about livestock and household pets.

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