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Community emergency response team

A community emergency response team (CERT) is a group of amateur emergency workers. They are usually neighbors. Under good doctrine, they receive professional mass training and become official auxiliaries to local government emergency services in times of emergency.

The theory behind CERT is based on a simple observation: In major emergencies, professional emergency services overload instantly. Every area in the world has earthquakes and tornadoes, and the most common disasters are floods and severe storms. Common mass emergencies include flood, hurricane, tsunami, earthquake or nuclear attack. These are all able to create mass emergencies, and thus CERTs have a mission everywhere.

For example, in a city with 100,000 people, usually only 5 fire stations and two police stations are staffed, with perhaps 40 firefighters, ten fire trucks and thirty police on duty. This is adequate for normal emergencies, rescues and crimes. In normal rescues, rescuers outnumber victims four to one, and can respond in minutes. A typical rescue is completed in a half hour.

In the above community, if a mass emergency traps or injures just two percent of the inhabitants, there are instantly 2,000 victims, many with injuries. The telephones will fail from overload. Roads, bridges, electricity and other services may fail, hampering emergency services, and interfering with fuel and material supplies.

Say that only professionals respond to that mass emergency. Take 2000 victims. divide by 0.5 hours per rescue. The result is 1000 hours of rescues, divided by ten trucks, or about 100 hours. As many as three quarters of the victims could die while waiting for rescue. After an hour and a half, untreated victims of shock would begin to die. After one day, trapped children would begin to die of thirst. After two days, trapped adults and shut-ins would begin to die of thirst. Most of these deaths could be prevented by simple rescue and first-aid procedures. This is a heartbreaking situation for all concerned.

In these environments CERTs are far more effective than untrained civilians. With less than 40 hours of training, an amateur disaster service worker becomes qualified to perform about 95% of needed emergency services. This means that 95% of the rescues and life-saving triage and first-aid procedures can be completed in the "golden day," the first 24 hours when rescues and first-aid are most likely to succeed.

Physical fitness is not required for most CERT training or emergency activities. CERT members are instead trained to avoid hazards, and assign strenuous tasks to younger or fit members of the team.

In a major emergency, the community needs mass emergency services. Although amateurs are not able to work as skillfully as professionals, they are immensely better than nothing.

Table of contents
1 CERT organization
2 The Community Emergency Response

CERT organization

A local government, usually a city, divides its territory into neighborhoods. It then attempts to recruit a CERT in each neighborhood. Most governments with CERTs maintain a full-time community-service person as liaison to the volunteers that perform much of the rest of the organization.

CERTs provide their own personnel, supplies, tools, organization and equipment, but they are activated by, trained by, promoted by and liaise with the government. They are temporary volunteer government workers, usually organized as auxiliaries to the fire department. In some areas, (such as California) during declared disasters, registered, activated CERT members are eligible for worker's compensation for on-the-job injuries.

A CERT consists of a neighborhood leader, block leaders, street teams, and specialist teams for search-and-rescue, triage and first aid, planning, communication, logistics, and shelter.

The city directly liaises with the neighborhood CERT leader through the CERT's organic communication team. In wealthy areas the communications may be by amateur radio, or dedicated telephone or fire-alarm networks. In poor areas, relays of bicycle-equipped runners can effectively carry mail between the districts and the city's emergency operations center.

The CERT's block leaders and street teams provide truly local organization with in-depth local knowledge that can quickly locate shut-ins and injured persons and dangers, and liase between the neighborhood's people and professional emergency workers. They take the information back to the neighborhood leader, who assigns persons to the needs of the moment.

In the short term, CERTs perform data gathering, especially to locate mass-casualties requiring professional response, or situations requiring professional rescues, simple fire-fighting tasks (e.g. small fires, turning off gas), light search and rescue, damage evaluation of structures, triage and first aid. In a slightly longer term, they evacuate injured people (using local vehicles, in an organized triaged fashion), and set up a neighborhood shelter and tent-city for food, sanitation and sleeping, usually in a local park.

The Community Emergency Response

In an emergency, the first step is for CERT members to rescue themselves and their families.

FEMA requests families to prepare for two basic scenarios: home confinement, and evacuation, both with three days of food and water, medical supplies, a flashlight, radio, spare clothing, tools and copies of essential identification, medical and insurance documents. The home confinement kit should include a tent, plastic bags and bleach (for expedient latrines) and be packed outside the house, perhaps in a trash-can. The evacuation kit should be in the trunk of a car, and permit hand-carrying in case a flood stops the car.

California experience with earthquakes suggests that every family member should have a "grab and go" bag, attached to their bed. It has to be attached to the bed, because in real earthquakes (and perhaps other emergencies), bags in closets or under beds were lost when furniture moved and structures failed. The bag has to include shoes and a flashlight. The most common injury in surprise emergencies is a foot injury, when people try to run on broken glass. The most common problem is a power or lighting failure, and a flashlight is an immense help to self-rescue at night. Many people pack an entire personal emergency kit in the grab and go bag, but a shopping bag with shoes and a flashlight is enough to start (do it NOW, improve it LATER).

You should learn where to turn off your home's gas, electric and water service. If this requires tools, attach them to the service box, or place them in your kit.

Adults need a crowbar or fireman's tool, and protective clothing: closed-toe shoes, gloves, construction helmet, dust mask and goggles. The best tools for a family are a prybar, hatchet, shovel, and lightweight saw. A team should have shoring, as well. The FEMA web site recommends medical supplies for a family, as well as suggestions for storing food.

Children should be trained to wait for a parent unless they see fire or feel heat. The family should establish an outside meeting place, and evacuation methods from every room.

After self-rescue, the neighborhood goes to their team's neighborhood "command post," established at earlier meetings. The object is to centralize and prioritize resources. This one step is the single most powerful act of a CERT. The CERT command post is always marked by a flag, sign or tabard to help people locate it.

The leader (selected at an earlier meeting) assigns street teams to systematically assess every building in the neighborhood and report back. Meanwhile, the neighborhood leader assigns people to specialist teams. Generally, a trained and untrained person, or a fit and unfit person are paired.

If the teams lack trained staff, the leader rips out sections of the notebook acquired during his training, and the teams self-train. The notebooks include check-lists and procedures. Literacy is both assumed and essential.

When the leader takes charge and a communications person is present, the team reports that it started-up to the city's emergency operations center.

In a good team, various families have agreed to loan supplies, tools and equipment to the team in an emergency. They bring these to the logistic team, who issues them. Logistics people also canvass new people for needed tools, food, water, tents, paper, field commodes and other needs listed by the planners.

When the street and block assesments come back, the planners try to track current problems and anticipate future needs so the leader can assign teams well. Usually the critical planning aid is a couple of greaseboards (which work in rain).

The assessments include details like addresses of: destroyed buildings, unrescued persons, and hazards, as well as people who need immediate professional care or professional rescues.

The communicators send a digested summary of damage and critical injuries to the city's emergency operations center. The 5% of rescues that require professional training and equipment are also reported in the summary.

Soon, the CERT begins rescues, and brings injured people to the first-aid station. Planners track the injuries, especially triaged injuries requiring immediate professional care. The communicators inform the city when local rescues are complete, and give an updated summary of severe injuries and damaged buildings.

At some point, a fire or police team may appear at the command post. The planners and leader can brief them. This saves professional responders huge amounts of time, and directs them to important problems.

Eventually, the city's emergency operations center tells the CERT where the injured people who need immediate care can be taken. The logistics people recruit vehicles, the leader assigns drivers and first-aid people, and the severe injuries are evacuated. Later, less immediate injuries will be evacuated.

Throughout, shelter workers register people and children so family members can find them, and feed and house people and (if possible) pets (in tents, eventually). As time passes, the communicator passes lists of registrees as desgnated by the emergency operations center. In most situations, Red Cross or Red Crescent helps family members locate each other.

The result is not professional, but it's much better than an unorganized mob.


CERT training is easy for government. The training can be organized as mass-classes using pre-existing training facilities. Training usually combines expert lecturers, take-home emergency manuals and self-study materials with hands-on classes in small groups with previously-trained CERT volunteers. The result is a very good value for the cost.

Most effective programs run a program on a very predictable schedule so civilians can locate the training. For example, one effective format has a four-hour training program on the first Saturday morning of each month.

About 1% of adults will train simply because the training is available. More will train if the area is prone to periodic disasters, or the government effectively recruits public-service groups and schools. Civilians are recruited with advertising in schools, businesses, parks, recreation programs, libraries, and open-houses for fire and police departments.

CERT participation becomes much wider if the recruiting and training is made into a social occasion. One of the best social recruiting methods is to ask trainees to go door-to-door in their neighborhoods. This mobilizes CERT trainees to establish neighborhood teams. Typically, the volunteer distributes flyers that offer a "yard party" on a patriotic holiday, and then hosts it.

If you offer food, the neighborhood will come, and after that, the neighborhood at least knows where to go. The flyers or pamphlets usually also give the schedules of training sessions. The social occasion gives people a place to meet and lets interested persons find each other and organize.

The first step of each training meeting is always to register attendees. A notice and newsletter is mailed to previous attendees to arrive just before the next training session. The city also uses attendance to certify people, giving the city a database of trained volunteers.

As a last step, before graduating and certifying volunteers that complete the training, the city can run a criminal check on them. This means that even criminals can train (they need disaster preparation, too!), but the city can avoid depending on them.

During registration, the trainee gets a name tag, with a colored dot, or group number.

As part of registration, the trainee collates a self-training booklet for the current class, and adds it to the notebook binder he was requested to bring to each session. This notebook eventually forms an important resource to help remember procedures in a real disaster. It also assures that a trainee has an exact, valuable record of the areas in which he was trained- many trainees make up missed classes in order to fill their notebook.

The CERT organization may run a lottery to encourage attendance. The tickets are given at registration. The premiums are given after the training, and may include items purchased by the government (tools or supplies) as well as commercial promotional offerings from local businesses, such as free lunches or sample products.

After this, the group splits into parts (assigned by the colored dots on their badges) and trains. Having several groups permits smaller facilities to be used in rotation with lectures and demonstrations.

Topics for a week-end training session usually include: "need for disaster preparedness", "fire safety and fire extinguisher use", "first aid and triage", "cardiopulmonary resuscitation", "logistics and communication", "sheltering", "search and rescue", "team organization" and graduation.

In some areas, auxiliary classes are offered to train communicators, radiological safety officers, shelter cooking and organization, staffing of the emergency operations center, and advanced CPR and first-aid.

After the training, the lots are drawn and the premiums are distributed.

After a trainee graduates, and passes the background check, they may get distinctive clothing, possibly a protective helmet or emergency-colored windbreaker with organizational logos. This becomes their service uniform.