When disaster strikes, especially when it’s a large-scale disaster, resources are often spread thin. It can take hours, or even days, before firefighters, law enforcement or emergency medical technicians are able to reach every person affected. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program educates volunteers not only how to be prepared for the hazards that may impact their area, but also how to provide basic emergency disaster response skills and disaster medical operations to help people until responders arrive and to assist in any way possible once those emergency responders are on the scene. 

Camden County now has more than 30 active CERT-trained volunteers. A graduation ceremony for the most recent class – the fourth to be offered – was held in early December.

“We wanted to honor the dedication and sacrifice that the volunteers made up to this point. They put aside every Monday night for eight weeks to learn some very interesting topics in order to serve Camden County residents and first responders such as medical personnel and fire, police and sheriffs’ departments. And I thank them for their commitment and felt it was important to recognize that,” said Gerry Hodge, who provides the search-and-rescue training for CERT and assists with coordinating the Camden County program. “However, this is just the beginning for all of us because it doesn’t stop here. We’re focused on a team concept, and as a team, we’ll continue to work and train together to become more efficient so we’ll be ready if and when disaster should strike.”

Through hands-on practice and realistic exercises, CERT members learned about:

Disaster Preparedness: Addresses hazards specific to the community. Materials cover actions that participants and their families take before, during and after a disaster as well as an overview of CERT and local laws governing volunteers.

Fire Suppression: Covers fire chemistry, hazardous materials, fire hazards and fire suppression strategies. However, the thrust of this session is the safe use of fire extinguishers, controlling utilities and extinguishing a small fire.

Medical Operations Part I: Participants practice diagnosing and treating airway obstruction, bleeding and shock by using simple triage and rapid treatment techniques.

Medical Operations Part II: Covers evaluating patients by doing a head-to-toe assessment, establishing a medical treatment area and performing basic first aid.

Light Search and Rescue Operations: Participants learn about search and rescue planning, size-up, search techniques, rescue techniques and rescuer safety.

Psychology and Team Organization: Covers signs and symptoms that might be experienced by the disaster victim and workers, and addresses CERT organization and management.

Course Review and Disaster Simulation: Participants review and practice the skills that they have learned during the previous six sessions in a disaster activity.

After successfully completing this free program, graduates are provided with bags filled with emergency medical supplies, tools and other equipment and are asked to attend as many monthly meetings as possible in order to stay informed and updated. Volunteers are also able to attend additional classes that are also offered free of charge.

“This program is for anyone who cares about his or her community and who wants to help in numerous ways. At a scene, we can be tasked with everything from providing water or blankets to assisting with search and rescue. Sometimes we even direct traffic for the chamber of commerce,” he laughed. “

Hodge retired from the military after serving 14 years as an investigator with the military police. He moved to Missouri in the early 1990s and worked as a veteran service officer with the Missouri Veterans’ Commission for 22 years before retiring last year.

“I had so much training in the military, and I wanted to get involved with something where I could continue to serve my community. I learned about CERT at the Dogwood Festival, and thought it would be interesting and would allow me to put that training to good use. I’m the kind of person who likes to get out and get my hands dirty, so working on search and rescue is right up my alley, but we have plenty of opportunities for people who aren’t interested in doing that type of work. And nobody is too old or too out-of-shape to help. For instance, if a tornado would sweep through the area, the EMA might need someone to stay at the command center to answer phones. Someone disabled could do that.”

Because the Camden County CERT program is fairly new, they are still in the process of getting organized, appointing officers and lining up people who have expertise in certain areas to better the organization and find out what works best for the group. In the past, the eight-week training program has been held three hours per night, one night per week. However, Hodge said they are also looking at the possibility of offering the class two nights per week for four weeks. Although dates have not yet been set, he said he’d like to begin the next class in April. CERT will also be working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to present an emergency preparedness class for the community in April. There is no charge to attend. More information will be available soon.

To get more information or to learn how to enroll in the next class, call the Camden County Emergency Management Agency at 573-346-7108.

More information on disaster planning is available at www.ready.gov; www.sema.dps.mo.gov; www.dhss.mo.gov; and www.redcross.org.

The CERT concept was developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1985. The Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987 underscored the area-wide threat of a major disaster in California. Further, it confirmed the need for training civilians to meet their immediate needs.

The CERT program was designed as a grassroots initiative and specifically structured so that the local and state program managers have the flexibility to form their programs in the way that best suits their communities.

There are now more than 2,700 local CERT programs operating nationwide, with more than 600,000 individuals representing all 50 states, many tribal nations and U.S. territories involved. Each is unique to its community but all are focused on building a culture of preparedness. FEMA also supports CERT by conducting or sponsoring Train-the-Trainer and Program Manager Courses for members of the fire, medical and emergency management community.

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