The Emergency Response Team Model:
A Common Sense Approach!
In his January 29, 2002 state of the union address, President Bush
asked Americans to volunteer their services to improve and safeguard
our country, and created the Citizen Corp program to help Americans
meet this call to service. One of the volunteer opportunities
offered to the American public under the Citizen Corp umbrella is
the Community Emergency Response Team.
When a major disaster strikes a community,
critical resources –
emergency services, communications, transportation, and lifeline
systems – are often overwhelmed. Neighborhoods and businesses are
cut off from outside support. There may be restricted access of
emergency response organizations into critically affected areas.
Individuals, neighborhoods, schools and businesses may need to rely
on their own resources for food, water, first aid, and shelter in
the 72 hours immediately following the disaster. Self-help and
mutual aid become essential. The ability to "fend for yourself"
during this crucial time period will be critical to survival and
In every major disaster, volunteers emerge
to do the initial search,
rescue, and first aid. Such volunteerism is inevitable. Combine this
fact with the probability that critical resources will be
overwhelmed. You now have two good reasons to prepare at the
Through the leadership of the City of Los
Angeles, a program began
to emerge in the mid 80's that would increase "community self-
sufficiency" during times of disaster. CERT, the Community Emergency
Response Team program, has been adapted and is being used worldwide.
Community preparedness makes sense for a number of reasons.
A Rationale For...
Community-Based Preparedness Planning
Hazard reduction and preparedness measures reduce injuries, loss of
lives, and property damage.
Individuals and organizations perform more effectively in a disaster
period if there has been prior planning for disaster response.
Studies indicate that self-help preparedness will enhance the
ability of a person to manage and perhaps even reduce some of his or
her own emergency needs.
Preparedness efforts are more successful if they are incorporated
into the social and political fabric of the community -
neighborhoods, schools, work places, churches, etc.
Effective response requires comprehensive planning and coordination
of all who need to be involved – government, volunteer groups,
private businesses, schools, etc. With the necessary training and
information, individuals, neighborhoods, schools and businesses may
serve as a crucial resource, capable of performing many of the
necessary emergency functions in the immediate post-disaster period.
The Beginnings of CERT...
Lessons from Japan
In February of 1985, a group of Los Angeles City officials went to
Japan to study its extensive earthquake preparedness plans. The
group encountered a society that had taken extensive steps to train
entire neighborhoods in one aspect of alleviating the potential
devastation that would follow a major earthquake. These single-
function neighborhood teams were trained in either fire suppression,
light search and rescue operations, first aid, or evacuation.
Lessons from Mexico City.
In September of that year, a Los Angeles City investigation team was
sent to Mexico City following an earthquake there that registered a
magnitude 8.1 on the Richter scale. More than 10,000 people were
killed and 30,000 injured. Prior to the disaster, Mexico City had no
training program for citizens. However, large groups of volunteers
spontaneously organized and performed light search and rescue
operations. Volunteers are credited with more than 800 successful
rescues. Unfortunately, more than 100 of these untrained volunteers
died during the 15-day rescue operation.
The lessons learned in Mexico City strongly indicate that a plan to
train volunteers to help themselves and others, and become an
adjunct to government response, was essential to overall
preparedness, survival, and recovery.
A Pilot Program in Los Angeles
The City of Los Angeles Fire Department developed a pilot program to
train a group of leaders in a neighborhood watch organization. A
concept developed involving multi-functional volunteer response
teams with the ability to perform basic fire suppression, light
search and rescue, and first aid. This first team of 30 people
completed training in early 1986 and proved that the concept was
viable through various drills, demonstrations, and exercises.
On October 1, 1987, the Whittier Narrows earthquake vividly
underscored the threat of an area-wide major disaster, and
demonstrated the need to expedite the training of civilians to
prepare for earthquakes and other emergencies.
A Commitment to Community Preparedness
Following the Whittier Narrows earthquake, the City of Los Angeles
took an aggressive role in protecting the citizens of Los Angeles by
creating the Disaster Preparedness Division within the Los Angeles
City Fire Department. Their objectives included:
· Educate and train the public and government sectors in
· Research, evaluate, and disseminate disaster information
· Develop, train, and maintain a network of Community
Emergency Response Teams (CERTs).
The CERT Program
Volunteers are trained in basic self-help emergency functions such
as team organization, management, fire suppression, utility control,
search and rescue, and disaster medical operations. Class size
varies, depending on need, in order to maximize training efforts and
insure quality of instruction. Classes should be between 25 and 60
persons. Ideally, firefighters and paramedics will teach the course
in eight 2-1/2 hour classes emphasizing "hands-on" training.
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
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
3. Town Government
In order to improve disaster operations and the Town's recovery
abilities, Town employees are trained, thus enabling Town government
to continue providing needed services to its citizens.
A eight week, 20 hour training program 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 earthquake threat in Southern
California. 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.
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 introduces terrorism awareness to the class by discussing
different types of terrorism attacks both foreign and domestic.
Prepares students to identify possible terrorist targets, and to
take action to protect themselves and others
Class 8 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 teaching the program
to a community group in the heavily brush laden Santa Monica
Mountains, a special emphasis is placed on home preparation for
brush fires and actions to take during a large scale brush fire.
When working with business teams within a high-rise building, alarm
and standpipe systems, stairwell access, and evacuation techniques
Upon completion of the course, team members are given a certificate
and provided with green hard hats and silk-screened vests for
identification. 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.
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. 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
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. Ham radio and CB
radio links may be used to increase communication capabilities and
The staging location is where the Fire Department 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.
With this in mind, the City of Los Angeles formed "The Community
Liaison Program." The liaisons are in a position to stimulate
interest and maintain involvement in the team by scheduling regular
team meetings and by planning and participating in practice disaster
In order to maintain skill levels and improve performance,
supplemental training for each team is conducted quarterly with 2-
1/2 hour continuing education classes. Teams from various areas are
combined during this training so that valuable Fire Department
resources can be more efficiently utilized, and the networking of
teams can be expanded.
The CERT program provides an effective first-response capability.
Acting as individuals first, then later as a team, trained
volunteers can fan out within their particular areas, extinguishing
small fires, turning off natural gas inlets to damaged homes,
performing light search and rescue, and then rendering basic first
aid. Trained volunteers also offer an important potential work force
to service organizations in non-hazardous functions, such as shelter
support, crowd control, evacuation, etc.
Clearly, the key to survival is self-sufficiency, and the key to
mitigating the effects of a disaster is preparation and planning.
The CERT program is a significant step toward reducing the impact of
a disaster by ensuring that city employees, civilians in business
and community groups will not only be "spontaneous" but also
effective First Responders!