Thursday, September 9, 2010

CERT - Community Emergency Preparedness

One of my projects for the past summer was to sign up for a "CERT" class.  It really was an excellent experience and I highly recommend it to others.

CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Training.  The idea is that if there is a serious emergency, police, firefighters, and EMTs will be overwhelmed and won't be able to get to all the people who need help in a very timely manner.  They will have to prioritize and go to the most critical locales first, places where the maximum amount of lives can be saved, or places critical to the community (like schools, hospitals, etc.).  Therefore, the chances of them responding to you in your neighborhood --- or at your workplace -- are small in the immediate hours after an emergency.  That means you could be a long time on your own before help arrives.

To help fill the gap, the government created a program to help train community responders to supplement the efforts of professional first responders.  Community responders would help their own families first, then respond to others in an expanding circle around their location, helping out until first-responders could get there to take over. 

CERT team members would help organize interim medical care, do light search and rescue, and do basic safety procedures (turning off the gas if it's leaking, operating fire extinguishers for small fires, find a safe location for victims, etc.)  CERT members would also do basic triage --- separating the wounded into different groups based on seriousness of the injuries --- so that when first responders arrive (or when transport is available), the most serious cases can get help more quickly.  Until first responders arrive or patients are transported, CERT members also provide as much medical care to victims as circumstances and their skills allow. 

I'd heard about the CERT classes in our area for several years, but never felt I could take time for the class.  I had small babies at home that I could not easily leave, or was responsible for the care of ill family members whose needs were too unpredictable for committing to a class series.  But finally, I decided the time was right and made it my goal to get this training going this summer.

I had to drag my husband and my oldest son to the class, kicking and screaming the whole way.  We've all had First Aid/CPR classes, my husband was an Eagle Scout, and my son has had e-prep (emergency prep) as part of his path towards becoming an Eagle too.  Both of them thought that this class series would be just more of the same stuff they already knew.

They were wrong, and at the end of the class, they admitted so to me.  (Yes!)  The classes went way beyond what they'd already learned, complemented the skills they already had, and took their preparations much further.  Now they are CERT converts, and we want to spread the word to others in the community as well. 

About CERT Classes

A CERT class is FREE; it doesn't cost you a penny to take the class. You can find out more about CERT here, and you can search for classes in your local area here. Or you can just google "CERT classes" and the name of your city or area to see if there is a CERT website specifically for your area. 

A CERT class is usually 6-8 weeks long, depending on your location, and 2-3 hours each session. However, many large employers arrange to have longer classes done in 2 work days for their employees, so getting it through your work is also an option if you don't want to commit to a 6-8 week session. CERT often also does 2-day training with local school districts; you might be able to get the class that way.

Bonus: You often get free "goodies" at the end of the class. The class is sponsored by grants from FEMA and other government agencies, so money is available for emergency coordinators to buy limited amounts of basic safety equipment for participants. What you get will vary from location to location, but our class gave us hard hats, high-visibility safety vests, tools for turning off gas and water, work gloves, eye protection, a waterproof book with all the CERT information summarized in it, and several other small little "door prizes." I packed these (plus a few other items, like nitrile gloves, flashlights, duct tape, etc.) into a backpack and now carry it with me at all times in my car for quick access in case of an emergency.

Here is some information about CERT classes from the official CERT website:
CERT is about readiness, people helping people, rescuer safety, and doing the greatest good for the greatest number. CERT is a positive and realistic approach to emergency and disaster situations where citizens will be initially on their own and their actions can make a difference. Through training, citizens can manage utilities and put out small fires; treat the three killers by opening airways, controlling bleeding, and treating for shock; provide basic medical aid; search for and rescue victims safely; and organize themselves and spontaneous volunteers to be effective...

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recognizes the importance of preparing citizens. The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) and the National Fire Academy adopted and expanded the CERT materials believing them applicable to all hazards.
What Does The Class Cover?

The CERT class series usually covers seven sessions/topics.  Some class series compress these into six sessions or expand them into eight, but basically there are seven sessions, summarized here from the website:
  • Session I, DISASTER PREPAREDNESS: Addresses hazards to which people are vulnerable in their community. Materials cover actions that participants and their families take before, during, and after a disaster. As the session progresses, the instructor begins to explore an expanded response role for civilians in that they should begin to consider themselves disaster workers. Since they will want to help their family members and neighbors, this training can help them operate in a safe and appropriate manner. The CERT concept and organization are discussed as well as applicable laws governing volunteers in that jurisdiction.
  • Session II, DISASTER FIRE SUPPRESSION: Briefly covers fire chemistry, hazardous materials, fire hazards, and fire suppression strategies. However, the thrust of this session is the safe use of fire extinguishers, sizing up the situation, controlling utilities, and extinguishing a small fire.
  • Session III, DISASTER MEDICAL OPERATIONS PART I: Participants practice diagnosing and treating airway obstruction, bleeding, and shock by using simple triage and rapid treatment techniques.
  • Session IV, DISASTER MEDICAL OPERATIONS, PART II: Covers evaluating patients by doing a head to toe assessment, establishing a medical treatment area, performing basic first aid, and practicing in a safe and sanitary manner.
  • Session V, LIGHT SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATIONS: Participants learn about search and rescue planning, size-up, search techniques, rescue techniques, and most important, rescuer safety.
  • Session VI, DISASTER PSYCHOLOGY AND TEAM ORGANIZATION: Covers signs and symptoms that might be experienced by the disaster victim and worker. It addresses CERT organization and management principles and the need for documentation.
  • Session VII, COURSE REVIEW AND DISASTER SIMULATION: Participants review their answers from a take home examination. Finally, they practice the skills that they have learned during the previous six sessions in disaster activity.
As you can see, some of the class was review of First Aid skills we already knew, but it was still useful because it was more advanced.  For example, a lot of current First Aid classes don't teach you things like splinting broken bones anymore, because first responders can get there so fast and do a more reliable job. But in an extended emergency, you better believe that knowing how to splint bones (or how to deal with penetrating wounds) will come in handy.  Plus it's good to learn how to quickly evaluate and prioritize ("triage") wounds so you can deal more effectively with a large volume of patients.

The class also covered stuff I've never had before -- like Search And Rescue (SAR).  It showed us how to "crib" --- use wood and other materials you can scavenge from your area to lift heavy things off of people safely --- so you can get victims out of damaged buildings and into medical care. It was truly fascinating to see how putting physics to use in a practical way could help you rescue people you might otherwise not be able to help. (We lifted a giant van off of a crash dummy for our practice, something most of us would not have been able to do without knowing cribbing.) We discussed various ways of moving people and how to protect yourself when doing so, all very practical and useful skills.

The class gave us hands-on practice in putting out minor fires with fire extinguishers (which is how I convinced my teenage son to go to the class!).  That was fun.  Even though fire extinguishers are easy to use, there's more to consider than you might realize, so the hands-on practice was really useful.  Frankly, a small home fire is one of the emergencies you are more likely to encounter in your life, so although fire extinguisher practice is a really basic skill, it may well have been one of the most useful things we worked on. 

One of the best things the class taught us was the best way to organize others in an emergency, how to lessen the risk for rescuer injury, and how to document details of the situation to ease transition with first responders.  There are organizational structures that lead to more efficient rescues, and this leads to better outcomes than a lot of people doing free-lance vigilante rescues and possibly getting injured too.  Knowing how to set up an efficient organizational structure, knowing what safety hazards to look for, and knowing what information and on-ground organization would be most useful to first-responders when they DO arrive was incredibly valuable. 

And of course, the class also promoted getting yourself prepared for an emergency.  I'm more prepared than many folks because I at least have an emergency kit, but even I had a fair amount of work to do (and am still working on re-organizing things more efficiently). 

As I've mentioned before, some years ago I lived near an area that had a major earthquake, and I will never forget the news coverage of the aftermath.  Many areas really did have to fend for themselves for a while, people had to rely on each other for rescue and initial medical help, and people had to do without power, water and food for some time.  Are you prepared to do something like that?  Could you keep your family warm, hydrated, and fed if the power grid went down for days, weeks, or more?  Could you provide help if a loved one was injured in a disaster? This class helps you figure out what's most important to have in an emergency kit, where to get supplies, how to afford building a kit a little at a time, and how to organize it. 

At the end of the class, everyone had to participate in a simulated emergency so they could practice using the skills we learned.  That was really an eye-opening experience.  You think you've learned everything really well, but to actually put those skills to use in a safe test environment leads to insights and improvements you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. 

Our class simulated responding to a school (during extra-curricular activities) after an earthquake.  It was interesting to see which skills held up and which ones didn't, whether we remembered our training, and where the gaps in our learning were.  We ran the scenario twice, and of course the second time we improved our response....but it was really important to be part of that first, not-so-efficient response because that's the one we really learned from.

I was more than a little intimidated by the thought of participating in the simulated emergency....I hate doing a poor job at anything and I was also concerned about whether I could physically handle it......but it was fine. I was able to physically handle it, we all failed to one degree or another in our organizational tasks, and the firefighters who supervised us were pretty good at helping us learn from our mistakes.  That was incredibly useful and is an important part of the program. 

Once you complete the initial training, they also have follow-up training available in specific skills, and periodic emergency drills in the community where you can practice keeping up your basic skills.  Follow-up training and drills are all completely voluntary; you don't have to do anything more than the basic CERT training, but many people like to go further.  I think I will, in time.

What Emergencies Are Likely In Your Area?

It was useful to discuss the most likely emergencies in our area.  The organizers were not survivalists, preparing for the end of the world via nuclear attack by terrorists.  Although possible, that is not as likely an emergency scenario as natural disasters etc. Emergencies happen in all parts of the country, and we spent time discussing which were the most likely emergencies to prepare for in our area and what preparation would be most valuable for those scenarios. 

For example, in some parts of the country, the biggest thing to worry about is tornadoes, in which case search and rescue skills might be especially important. In others, it's hurricanes, in which search and rescue skills and ability to be without power for extended times might be important.  In others, it's wildfires or mudslides or floods, in which having a "grab and go" kit would be important. In others, it's winter storms, in which having a way to stay warm without power for a while and an emergency kit for your car would be important.  In others, it's earthquakes, in which many of the above skills would be needed. 

The key is to familiarize yourself with the most likely scenarios for your area, prepare for those, and then if you want to worry about the less likely things like terrorist attacks or nuclear fallout, you can prepare for those as well.

Can I Handle CERT Training?

One reason I had hesitated to become involved in CERT was because I wasn't sure I was fit enough to handle it.  I injured my knees in a bad car accident a couple of years ago and haven't been able to exercise as much as before, so I wasn't sure if I'd physically be up for what was needed.  Before I signed up, I wrote the emergency coordinator for our city and asked him whether I should take the class.

He replied yes, absolutely.  He noted that they have many people of all different physical abilities and challenges in the program.  Some skills, like search and rescue, need a higher fitness level, it's true.  Unless it was my own kids stuck in the rubble, I probably would not be aggressively going in and doing SAR.  But many jobs are supervisory, organizational, or medical, and I was more than capable of doing those. 

So that's what I did in our disaster simulation; the first time through I helped with the command structure and organizational stuff, and the second time through I helped with the medical treatment areas.  And I was perfectly fine at doing those, even with my physical challenges. 

So don't let being fat or having physical challenges keep you from getting trained.  Yes, there are some jobs you might not be able to do, but we really did have a wide variety of ages and abilities in the class.  Many were seniors; one had broken her leg really badly the previous year and could not help with Search and Rescue either.  So she become Incident Commander on our second run-through, and did a great job. 

The point is that everyone is needed in an emergency, and everyone has a potential role to play in helping others, and there are many jobs available.  Don't let fitness or physical challenges keep you from taking the training.


stephanieleah said...

Thank you...I've been putting this on the back burner as something I'll do "sometime soon". Now I'm motivated to research and do it!

Edward Vielmetti said...

Thanks for this really good write up of what to expect - it's really appreciated.