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Wanted: Herndon CERTs

Neighbors Train To Help

Even learning to properly use and speak into a communications radio is taught to the 20 people gathered in a room at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy last Wednesday. The radio could become a valuable tool once the volunteers finish their training as members of a Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, which will assist first-responders in the case of an emergency, such as a hurricane, a search-and-rescue incident, or even to administer first aid to so-called walking wounded after a traumatic event.

Herndon graduated five CERT members in the county's first class in December and has nine more currently enrolled in the eight-week training program. In all, the county hopes to have at least 100 teams, consisting of 20-24 members, within three years.

"We can be activated for anything you can think of that might overwhelm the first responders," said Hal Singer, the Herndon CERT coordinator and a graduate of the first class. "My goal is to get the Herndon CERT up to 50 people. During an emergency, you probably only have about half that available, and we have to work in teams of two and three."

THE CERT PROGRAM grew out of President George W. Bush's call for citizens to become more active within their communities after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. A similar program had already been in place for about 80 years in California, where the local fire departments learned citizens would come out to help during a major disaster whether they wanted them to or not, said the Derek Rowan, the lead CERT instructor for Fairfax County. So in California, the fire department began training citizen volunteers the proper way to respond to such disasters.

"To teach them to keep safe and do good within their communities," Rowan said.

The local CERT program builds on that concept. Nationwide, the program was placed under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which in turn tapped individual states to stress the importance of CERTs through that state's Citizen Corps. Locally, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department was tasked with developing a program that would work best here.

"We're using the FEMA-supplied curriculum and it has been enhanced for the community here and is delivered by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue," said Rowan, who is also a volunteer fire fighter in Springfield and an instructor at the county's Fire Academy. "It encompasses a tremendous amount of first-responder knowledge like organization, incident management, first aid, CPR, AED [a type of defilbulator], haz mat and terrorism awareness, building triage [or assessment], and the use of search-and-rescue techniques. And safety is the absolute primary emphasis."

While the CERTs are learning how to perform many of the tasks now provided by first responders, their job will simply be to assist in the case of an emergency, most likely after the initial traumatic event has already occurred, said Rowan.

"Everything we learn is applicable to taking care of our own family," Singer said. "We don't do anything dangerous. Safety is emphasized."

THE COUNTY CERTS have yet to be activated, however, a similar group was used in the Hampton Roads area after Hurricane Isabel. Rowan said he sees the teams being used for tornadoes and hurricanes, or large-scale terrorism or hazardous materials events to help with searches, extinguishing small fires, providing triage to wounded and turning off utilities. On a smaller scale, CERTs can be used for community outreach and to perform tasks such as distributing and installing smoke detectors for the elderly, helping with evacuations and traffic control, promoting awareness of hazardous materials and preparedness measures and serving as victims during training drills for the professionals.

"CERT training, in a some ways is directly targeted to citizens who want to help during a large-scale disaster," Rowan said. "The team could provide assistance to it own neighborhood while waiting for a fire response or if the fire response was too small."

Robert Mizer, the county CERT coordinator and volunteer liaison for the Fire and Rescue Department, said the idea is that if there was an emergency, the county command center could notify the local volunteer CERT coordinator, who would assemble the team and organize its response.

"It's designed to develop a team within the community who know each other ... and can take limited action to assist in an emergency," Mizer said.

Singer said the Herndon CERT, for now, has a basic phone tree to assemble the team members. Should the team be activated, it would be Singer's responsibility to alert the members, determine a meeting point and organize the team's response to the situation. He would like to see the Herndon CERT have drills three times a year, in order to stay prepared. Countywide, Rowan said CERTs will be required to attend additional training courses.

There are no specific requirements to becoming a CERT member other than being able to complete the eight-week training course, said Singer. So far, the county has graduated one CERT class, has a second class in process and has a third beginning this week, said Mizer. He said he hopes to have an exercise in March that incorporates all the CERTs.

For information about the county CERT program or future classes, contact Mizer at 703-246-3926 or visit the Volunteer Fairfax Web site at www.volunteerfairfax.org. For information specific to the Herndon CERT, e-mail herndoncert@yahoo.com.