Community Emergency Response Team

Juneau Amateur Radio Club, Inc.

Community Emergency Response Team

Are we ready?

By Nick Meacher, N3WWE

The events of September 11th 2001 have stirred many emotions and responses not only from citizens in the United States, but in many other countries.  These have ranged from financial and blood donations, care packages and outpourings of support and sympathy.  Emergency managers and responders have been evaluating their plans and preparations for dealing with a similar incident in their jurisdiction, but what about the average citizen.  What is their role when a disaster strikes their community?  Many citizens assume that their local emergency services will be there to help – but is that the case?


In a disaster the local emergency services receive hundreds of requests for assistance in the moments following the disaster.  The shear volume of requests overwhelm the 911operators and, in turn, there are not enough police officers, fire fighters and medical personnel to respond to every request. If a city’s fire and medical personnel are largely volunteer response can be further delayed as responders have trouble reaching their stations.  In addition, as has been proven during numerous disasters, communications systems become overloaded and possibly fail, including telephone and cellular phones.  The situation becomes more confusing as a result of the failure of communications systems and is further compounded by the failure of power supplies.

When local resources are overwhelmed they rely on help from other, near-by communities that are not affected. However, in Alaska that help is a long time away, and in southeast Alaska it could take days.  Federal response, usually in the form of Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces, is typically 36 hours away if you are “down south”.  In Alaska this will be much longer.

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But how do the local officials know what kind of help they need?

For years the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross and other disaster organizations have advocated that citizens and families have a “72 hour” emergency kit.  But there is much more that individual citizens can do to help themselves until “outside”, or even local, help arrives.  Some basic skills in disaster preparedness can prevent some injuries and damage and prepare individuals to take care of themselves.  Basic first aid will allow them to help family members and neighbors, they can also determine the urgency for the need of “professional” help.  Basic skills in putting out small fires before they become big ones, determining if a building is safe to enter, how to searching a building and how to rescue people that are trapped can save lives.  In the moments after a disaster people have a natural tendency to step in and help.  Basic skills will help them prevent further injuries and from becoming another victim, not only at home but at work and in schools.

Taken a step further, individuals with these basic skills can be trained to work as a team in their neighborhood, helping each other.  They can then communicate the needs in their area to the local officials, such as the number and severity of injuries, the amount of damage and need for emergency shelters and feeding facilities and roads that are blocked.  This information can be passed by phone or by  local amateur radio operators to the Emergency Operations Center, the heart of any city’s disaster response.  In the absence of this information local officials have to wait until they have had the opportunity to receive reports from emergency responders.  The extent of damage in a disaster is needed before local officials can request state resources, and state officials can declare a disaster and receive federal resources.

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But it can’t happen here!

This statement has been heard time and time again as an excuse not to do any planning or preparation. Let us look at our community and assess our “risk”.  Earthquake, tsunami, mud slide, avalanche and a severe winter storm are a few of the natural disasters that can effect us.  In addition, a plane crash at the airport will isolate us from any outside help for a long time, and a situation on a cruise ship could displace thousands of passengers into our community, which will create some severe logistical problems.  Any major disaster in Washington will also effect us.  So, it’s not a case of “if” it happens, but “when”.

Community emergency response training

In the mid 80’s officials in the City of Los Angeles, after studying Japan’s extensive earthquake preparedness plans, developed a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, training neighborhood watch leaders in basic fire suppression, light search & rescue and basic first aid.  On October 1st 1987 the Whittier Narrows earthquake proved the value of these community responders and the need to speed up the program.  Although the earthquake was 5.9 and resulted in 3 deaths within 40 minutes all ambulances were busy and half the fire engines were fighting fires.  As a result FEMA adopted the program and promoted its development in communities across the United States.  There are currently about 143 CERT programs throughout the states with at least one in each state.[i]  This equates to over 267 teams and 10,000 people.

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The CERT Program [ii]

Training for the Entire Community
Training is given to meet the specific needs of three groups:

1. Community Groups
Homeowners associations, neighborhood watch groups, or religious organizations are brought together to form geographically distributed teams.  The course also meets most of the requirements for the Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge for Boy Scouts.

2. Business and Industry
Business groups are selected depending on location and where they can accomplish the most good for the public during a large disaster.  This includes high-rise office buildings, large hotels, or large industrial complexes.  After a major disaster it has been shown that [iii]:

·         60% of businesses do not re-open their doors.

·         Companies can lose major portions of their customer base due to lack of contingency planning.

·         Organizations most likely to recover have an Emergency Operations Plan, have trained their workforce for disaster response on the job and at home, and have a Business Recovery and Resumption Plan.

3. City Government
In order to improve disaster operations and the City’s recovery abilities, City employees should be trained, thus enabling City government to continue providing needed services to its citizens.

4. Schools

School teachers have a unique responsibility, we entrust our children to them for a substantial portion of the work day.  Having teachers trained in CERT allows for an organized, planned and trained response and reduces the worry emergency response personnel, and all parents, have over the safety of their children. [iv]

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The Curriculum
A 17½ hour training program (a 2½ hour class over seven evenings) was developed to prepare individuals for the overall demands resulting from a major disaster.  The training is not designed to enable civilians to respond to a disaster with the ability of professional emergency personnel, rather, it teaches greater self-sufficiency and optimizes chances of survival.  Brief class descriptions follow:

Class 1 begins with an overview of the potential disaster that can effect the local community. Personal and family preparedness are given a special emphasis because individuals must feel comfortable about the safety of their family and loved ones if they are asked to function away from home during an emergency.  This is followed by "how to" information on non-structural hazard mitigation.

Class 2 outlines basic fire suppression techniques to include size-up, fire chemistry, fire extinguisher types and usage, and utility control.  During Class 2, participants will extinguish a flammable liquid fire and begin developing self-confidence and teamwork.

Class 3 begins disaster medical operations with recognition and treatment of life threatening emergencies.  Volunteers also learn the principles of triage, transportation, and treatment area management.  CPR is not taught as the needed resources for a successful resuscitation will not be available in a disaster.  However, CPR can be a topic for continuing education at a later date.

Class 4 is the second session of disaster medical operations.  In this class, the head-to-toe patient evaluation is taught, along with recognition and treatment of non-life-threatening injuries.

Class 5 discusses light search and rescue operations, including search techniques, evacuation and rescue methods, principles of mechanical advantage, and basic cribbing techniques.  Heavy emphasis is placed on recognizing rescue limitations and safety by discussing the dangers of various building constructions.

Class 6 prepares members for the emotional environment by discussing the psychology of a disaster. The Incident Command System (ICS) is introduced in a simplified format, again stressing the need for teamwork, organization, and logistical planning.

Class 7 is a course review and simulated disaster exercise.  Participants are required to apply the individual principles they have learned to the overall demands of a simulated disaster.  This class will dramatize the multi-functional training approach, as well as promote team reliance.

Attempts are made to custom fit each program to the needs of the group receiving the training. For example, when working with business teams within a high-rise building or hotel, alarm and standpipe systems, stairwell access, and evacuation techniques are discussed.

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Team Operations
Upon completion of the course, team members are given a certificate. They are encouraged to purchase personal safety equipment, such as goggles, gloves, and basic first aid supplies. Businesses, on the other hand, are encouraged to provide needed safety equipment for their trained employees, and to establish an emergency supply cache.  Local businesses can be sources of donations to supply graduates with green hard hats and silk-screened vests for identification (green is the adopted color for CERT teams).

As each team is formed, they select a team leader, one alternate, and an emergency meeting location (staging area).  Teams are instructed to go into action during a relatively moderate earthquake of magnitude 5.0 or greater on the Richter scale or any other local emergency.  The idea is to have the team practice mobilization and damage assessment skills, regardless of actual need.

The deployment of CERTs in an actual disaster is intended to occur progressively and as needs dictate. Members are taught to first assess themselves and their immediate environment.  If there are no problems, then they expand to adjacent areas and continue to assess damage and provide assistance through their skills in emergency operations.

CERT members encountering no need would report to their staging locations and formulate action plans based on overall area needs.  If members find themselves in a heavily affected location and problems are greater than they can handle, then "runners" are sent to staging locations to obtain help from available resources.  Amateur radio may be used to increase communication capabilities and coordination with the City’s Emergency Operations Center and other teams and CB’s or Family Radio Service radios are used to maintain coordination within the teams.  In fact many of the teams now in existence across the country have members who are also amateur radio operators.

The staging location is where the police and fire departments would interact with CERTs.  Overall damage assessment and volunteer resource availability can thus be more effectively communicated and utilized.

The Follow Through..
Obviously, training cannot be a one-time job.  Awareness, commitment, and skills must be repeatedly practiced to maintain the edge necessary for the greatest level of response.  Teams should meet regularly and conduct training drills with the assistance of local instructors, emergency responders and other teams.  In some areas they have developed 2 advanced “levels” based on additional training.  Teams are also available to help with other activities in the community, such as traffic control for events.

Each community will usually have a CERT coordinator, a person with proven instructor abilities and experience in emergency preparedness, who has completed a Train-the-trainer course conducted by FEMA at the National Training Academy in Maryland.  The CERT coordinator will set up courses and be a point of contact for teams who want additional training.  Other instructors are pooled from local emergency responders and previous CERT graduates.

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People in the community will respond when there is a disaster, we have an unwavering desire to help our neighbors in a disaster, whether we know them or not.  Untrained helpers are dangerous to themselves, the victims and other rescuers.  A small amount of training in preparedness can reduce the amount of damage caused in an individual’s home or at their place or work, it can also save lives and greatly assist a community in getting “back to normal”.

So where can I get the training or more information?

More information on the CERT program can be obtained from the FEMA web site at www.fema.gov/emi/cert   Links can be found to other teams around the country.

An internet newsletter called “The Connection”, provides articles on team activities around the country and the latest edition is available at www.naem.com/connection.html 

A CERT class will in Juneau commencing Tuesday November 6th, from 7pm to 9.30pm at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Glacier Hwy (across from Western Auto).  The course will be on six consecutive Tuesday nights and one or two Saturday mornings.  

The course is open to anyone 12 years of age or older.  There is no cost for the course, however, students are required to provide work gloves and eye protection.  It is hoped that corporate/business sponsors can be found to provide safety vests and hard hats for graduates (about $25 each person).  

Due to the anticipated response to this course pre‑registration is requested to ensure that sufficient materials are available.  To pre-register contact Cheryl Easterwood, CBJ Disaster Plan Manager, at 586‑0221, or email

Nick Meacher is a CERT Train-the-Trainer, he is an amateur radio operator and the Emergency Coordinator for the local Amateur Radio Emergency Services organization.  He was a Police Officer in London, England for 7 years and responded to numerous terrorist and other mass casualty incidents.  He has been a paramedic for 12 years, and was Chief of a county wide mass casualty response team in Pennsylvania where he also planned and evaluated disaster exercises.  He has been a CPR and First Aid Instructor for over 15 years and an EMT Instructor for 10 years.  He has also taught courses in incident command, disaster preparedness & response and wilderness first aid & survival.


[i] information obtained from the directory of CERT programs and Overview of CERT at the FEMA web site www.fema.gov/emi/cert/dir.htm

[ii] this information was adapted from: “The Emergency Response Team Model: A Common Sense Approach!” by Frank Borden and Robert G Lee, published on the internet at www.disaster-resource.com and information on the FEMA web site at www.fema.gov/emi/cert

[iii] information from North American Emergency Management, Napa, CA at www.naem.com

[iv] Davis County School District, Farmington, Utah www.davis.k12.ut.us/emrprep/distuse.htm

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updated: 11/30/02

Copyright, 2001,2002, 2003 Juneau Amateur Radio Club, Inc. All Rights Reserved.