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Just In Case — There's CERT

Community responds and trains for emergencies.

There is a painting that depicts the falling Twin Towers of the World Trade Center with The Pentagon in the background and a waving American Flag superimposed over the scene. The caption below reads, "Never Underestimate the Resolve of The American People."

Living proof of that is the rise of the program known as Community Emergency Response Team — CERT. It is a potent part of the Fairfax County Citizen Corps.

On Dec. 10, 2003, just three days after the 62nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department graduated their first CERT class. The terrorists who struck New York City and The Pentagon should have heeded the words of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, "I fear that all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant."

Donna Ennis, a member of the Herndon Police Citizen Support Team, a graduate of that initial CERT class, summarized her feeling this way, "After 9/11 I knew that in the event of a disaster the last thing I wanted to do was stand around." A CPA with the federal government, her response is typical of the transformation since September, 2001.

Margo Buckley, a member of Clifton's town council was also a member of that first CERT class. "I wanted to volunteer somewhere and CERT sounded like a great program," she said. She has gotten three others from her town to become a part of the second class now underway and she is auditing it to stay current.

Heading up this effort is Bob Mizer, volunteer liaison for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. "The concept is to train volunteers to operate as a team. In the event of an emergency they would work as a team in their individual communities," Mizer explained.

"We really emphasize incident command training so that they will operate on a team basis in any given situation," Mizer stressed. "These people are not spontaneous volunteers."

Dan Schmidt, the department's public information officer, said, "The purpose of CERT is to operate when the regular first responders are overwhelmed or delayed in a given emergency situation. We link the teams to local fire stations."

THE INITIAL CLASS had an enrollment of 18 drawn from the Clifton/Herndon area. This class has 22 members composed primarily of George Mason University employees, according to Mizer.

A third class of 30 began Feb. 12, composed of additional enrollees from Clifton, the Canterbury Woods area and the Braddock District. "We are looking at possible teams in the Mount Vernon District and the Mason Neck area this year," Mizer said.

CERT is not geared just to potential terrorist attacks. It is designed to bring citizen volunteerism to bear, on an organized and structured basis, in time of any disaster — man or nature made.

"One of the areas we are looking at to establish a team is in Belle View. Particularly with what happened during Hurricane Isabel," Mizer said. "Within 18 months we hope to have CERT teams operational throughout the county."

He added, "Our ultimate goal is to have 2,000 people on 100 teams throughout the entire county. There is no upper age limit to participation as long as you are 18 or older. We will train you to the level of your ability. Citizens can go as far as they feel they can. There are positions for administration and logistics."

A fourth class, now in the planning stage, is to be composed of Boy Scouts from the Burke area. It will be part of the Venture Scout program and will kick off in March.

CERT CLASSES are 31 hours. This is approximately 11 hours longer than the program presented in Alexandria. "We've added a module on CPR and the Automatic External Defibulator," Mizer said. "It's not necessary to the basic curriculum, but the citizens wanted it."

With the vast ethnic diversity throughout the county, Mizer acknowledged, "We recognize that language is a major issue. That is why each team reflects that particular community."

Schmidt pointed out, "There are more than 2,000 homeowner associations countywide. We hope to work with all of them to strengthen this program," said Mizer

A Citizen Council/Citizen Corps was established by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. CERT operates under that umbrella. It is also an element of the Virginia Corps which, in turn, functions as a state element of America Corps/Freedom Corps.

The Virginia Corps has four segments: Volunteer and police services; Medical Reserve Corps, which operates under the State Health Department; Neighborhood Watch Program; affiliated organizations such as Red Cross and Salvation Army; Volunteer Fairfax, a community volunteer coordinating organization; and CERT.

Fairfax County's Citizens Corps and Citizens Corps Council are registered with National Citizens Corps, National Citizens Corps Council, Virginia Corps, and Virginia Citizens Corps Council.

"We anticipate CERT teams performing non-emergency functions such as volunteering at community activities where they can spread the word about the program," Mizer said. "And, we are looking at teaming up with CERT programs in other areas."

Mizer added, "CERT has only been in operation since March, 2003. The Citizens Council has taken the lead in advertising the program. In going out to civic organizations we have found an increasing interest in the program."

Mizer plans is to expand CERT training into work place environments. "If a business is interested in conducting a CERT training program they can contact me directly," he said. "These classes are geared specifically to the workplace. They include such things as how to evacuate an office complex, particularly a high-rise, and elevator situations."

Schmidt said, "These groups do not take the place of professional first responders. People are learning skills that can help themselves and their families as well as their communities. A lot of the training revolves around life skills."

MOST TRAINING takes place at the Fire and Rescue Training Academy, 4600 west Ox Road. However, some is done in each particular team's community.

Classes are three or four hours one night a week over a period of seven weeks, with one Saturday session. "We try to do it at the convenience of each team. Each class can be tailored to the community's desires," Mizer said.

Graduates receive a green hardhat-style helmet, vest, eye protection goggles, a polo shirt identifying them as a CERT member, and a certificate of graduation. "They also get a certain level of equipment," Mizer said. The next graduation is set for March 20, at the Academy.

"We work through the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. We are all linked to exchange information and comparisons. All our instructors are highly qualified," he assured.

Like Buckley, Ennis is staying active in the program to keep her skills honed. "I'm volunteering as a "victim" in the present class. And, the Herndon group is meeting every other month," she said.

Those interested to learn more about CERT can log onto the website at www.fairfaxcountycitizencorps.org or www.volunteerfairfax.org.