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January 19, 2018
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CERT involvement the answer to better disaster preparedness?

  • Graphic courtesy of the United States Department of Homeland Security.

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
January 12, 2018

Mother nature seems to be giving us a little wake-up call with the small early morning temblor felt last week and the deluge of rain the Bay Area received Monday, the topic of emergency preparedness kits is cropping back up. However, there’s another disaster preparedness tool that could be helpful in the face of an earthquake or flood that few local communities have — CERT, otherwise known as the community emergency response team.

CERT, a community oriented program designed to encourage neighborhoods to create their own emergency response team, teaches individuals an array of basic medical and disaster preparedness techniques. 

According to the county of Sonoma website, it aims to, “Prepare you to help yourself, your family and your neighbors in the event of a catastrophic disaster such as an earthquake, flood or fire, or other widespread event that affects our area when emergency services are not available to provide for immediate assistance.”

The other main concept of CERT is that it will serve as a network between neighbors who can be prepared to help their community and their neighbors in the event of a disaster. For example, if you are CERT trained and you know your neighbor is hard of hearing and there is a disaster, then you may know how best to help them.

“The biggest advantage of having the CERT program is that it puts the neighborhoods in communications with each other and first responders and ideally, a CERT program identifies strengths and weaknesses of each individual neighborhood… and establishes relationships with their first responders,” explained Christopher Helgren, emergency manager for Sonoma County. “And depending on their level of training they can become an active part of emergency response. It basically formalizes a neighbor help neighbor program.”

One such program was established in Sebastopol where a small group of residents created their own team in 2005 and formed their own CERT advisory board after working with then Sebastopol Fire Chief, John Zanzi. With only 18 people attending the first meeting session and training, the small group has turned around to have had over 300 people trained by Sebastopol Volunteer Firefighters and other local first responders, according to the Sebastopol website.

In addition to having an emergency kit prepped, being trained in “Disaster suppression, fire suppression, medical operations, search and rescue” and learning how to deal with disaster psychology and terrorism could be a more effective way to be ready when a disaster hits.

When asked of the effectiveness of CERT, Helgren said, “Oakmont is an example of probably the strongest one in Sonoma County where they have a very formal structure and a very tight relationship with the fire department… And I think there are (shining examples of an effective CERT team), but it is hard to define that because of the wax and wane of the nature of it in Sonoma County. But I do think being able to reach out to your neighbors and see if they are OK or if they need any help has value in that. In terms of nationally, there are a lot of big success stories.”

A recent success story of CERT being an effective way in helping a community stems from the La Tuna Fire that occurred near Burbank in September of 2017 when CERT members of the LAFD team were activated and worked on handing out water to firefighters at the containment line. 

According to cert-la.com, “The communities of Sun Valley, Shadow Hills and Sundland-Tujunga as well as Burbank and Glendale were quickly affected. The activation of those LAFD CERT members who took specific classes to qualify for duty was immediately implemented. They assisted at the command post at Hansen Dam and without stop, supplied our first responders with water, Gatorade and later on with food and needed supplies.”

The San Francisco team, otherwise known as NERT — neighborhood emergency response team, earned recognition by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors following NERT’s efforts in helping to clean up SF beaches that were affected by the 2007 Costco Busan oil spill. The massive container ship crashed into the western span of the Bay Bridge, dumping 58,000 gallons of fuel into the San Francisco Bay. The board of supervisors commended NERT for their efforts, saying they played an “integral role” in clean-up efforts. 

So if CERT can be beneficial in helping your community and your first responders in a disaster then why doesn’t Rohnert Park and its neighboring communities have their own CERT?

Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety Fire Commander Mike Bates said RP did have their very own team at one point, but that the focus has moved away from CERT to the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety Citizens Academy.

“We did have a CERT team at one point for RP, but there are (smaller community) ones out there like at Valley Village on Country Club Drive,” Bates said. “And we are putting a lot of effort into our citizen’s academy. That is the olive branch to the community, the way to reach out.”

He also emphasized that now CERT has turned into more of a grass-roots movement and a community has to want to get involved to start their own team.

“It is more of an independent program now where the community has to want to take the initiative to form their own group versus it being a direct program with police or fire (CERT participants can opt to do their 24-hour’s worth of training online if they want to),” Bates said. “We will steer them in the right direction and answer their questions, but it has become more independent and more online and you have to have a community willing to participate.”

Sebastopol residents were inspired to create their own CERT following the 100-year anniversary of the San Francisco 1906 earthquake. 

“On April 18, 2006, there was a display of old photos of damaged to Sebastopol from the 1906 quake, a couple of tables of earthquake preparedness materials and a sign-up sheet for the CERT class being offered in June. 18 people attended the first class and two people from out of town,” the Sebastopol CERT website states of its inception.

Helgren said the county usually sees more individual community teams spring up following a recent disaster and that interest in CERT can ebb and flow.

“It has surged and waned over the years. After Hurricane Katrina and after 9/11 there was a lot of interest in CERT, people are asking the question now about it because of the fires, so it usually takes a defining event and it is difficult to maintain because there are a lot of moving parts,” Helgren said. 

However, he also noted that if you receive CERT training and don’t end up in a community program then that is OK too. The skills and networking you learn could still be helpful in the event of a disaster. 

During the October firestorm, the effectiveness of the warning and evacuation notification system came under scrutiny. Nixle alerts kept residents up to date, but only after you signed up with the notification system or if your phone was on and even then due to down power lines, receiving notifications could be tricky. At a late 2017 RP City Council meeting, former Mayor Jack Mackenzie said he himself did not see the notifications since his phone was turned off and that his neighbor wasn’t listening to public safety door-to-door evacuation notices, until he went knocking on his neighbor’s door. If RP had a larger and stronger CERT, neighbors could be more in the know with one another and have the advantage of basic disaster response knowledge and how they can best help their neighbors.

Like Rohnert Park, Penngrove used to have their own CERT, but according to the Rancho Adobe Fire station in Penngrove, a lack of funds ended the program.

While Bates said it isn’t essential to have a CERT, he did say it would certainly be helpful. “We certainly support any community who wants to be involved and anybody can rally their neighbors to create a team.”

If you are interested in creating your own CERT program for your community, visit, ready.gov/community-emergency-response-team, or sonomacounty.ca.gov/FES/Emergency-Management/CERT. Or, if you are simply interested in basic CPR training, the Rancho Adobe Cotati fire station recommends visiting the American Heart Association website at heart.org