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CERT — It's A Community Thing

Citizens prepare for emergencies through training and education.

During World War II, they were known as "Air Raid Wardens." During the early years of the Cold War, they were dubbed "Block Captains." But the basic ingredients were always the same — citizen involvement and emergency preparedness.

In this post 9/11 world, it is CERT — Community Emergency Response Team. The difference this time is that the mission is much more comprehensive. Although the threat of more terrorist attacks, by whatever means, might have been the reactivation trigger, for those attending CERT training, the operative word is "emergency."

Be that emergency man-made or nature-made, the ability to deal with it as a functioning, well trained, organized citizen supporting professional first responders is at the core of both CERT and Citizen Corps. This past October, Alexandria graduated its first CERT class. On December 8, City Council approved "the reconstitution of the Citizens Corps Council."

Co-chairs of that Council are City Council members Ludwig P. Gaines and Rob Krupicka. Gaines also decided to become a member of CERT's second class which began on January 20. It is a 20 hour course stretching over eight weeks under the aegis of the Alexandria Fire Department.

"The first 72 hours of any emergency is critical. It is necessary to gain information and report back to the Citizens Council. That's what makes CERT so important and why I'm so excited to be a part of it," Gaines said.

The first CERT class had a total of six participants. This class has grown to 29. The next class, which begins in April, is already booked and the June session is filling up fast, according to Richard Sisler, public education officer and, newly named, Citizen Corps Liaison, in the Fire Department's Division of Emergency Management.

"We have been doing a lot of this for some time. But its the coordination that is so important in an emergency situation. Some of the elements of the Citizen Corps involve Neighborhood Watch, police and volunteers, and a medical reserve corps in addition to CERT personnel," Sisler explained.

The medical reserve corps is composed of volunteers who are medical professionals, both retired and active, that choose to give of their time and expertise, according to Sisler.

"This [CERT] program has grown by word of mouth. Now we have the opportunity to put it all under one umbrella and to teach citizens how to play an important role in an emergency situation. I think we [Alexandria] have the potential for the best CERT program and Citizen Corps in the Commonwealth," Gaines said as he joined Sisler and Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris at the Nannie J. Lee Training Center where CERT classes are held.

"We are working through all the components. But right now we are concentrating on CERT," Mesaris emphasized. "The idea is to engage all the various organizations in the city to service their particular area. We want CERT teams in all areas."

Mesaris further explained, "In case of an actual emergency, the Emergency Operation's Center would be activated to coordinate the CERT teams. They, in turn, would help coordinate relief emergency efforts."

HE USED HURRICANE Isabel as a prime example. "During Isabel, we had a lot of redundant calls. With a CERT captain present the touch stone to verify the situation will be one certified person or team," he said.

Using a model created by the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began promoting nationwide use of the CERT concept in 1994. Since then, CERTs have been created in communities from coast to coast.

CERT training promotes a partnering effort between emergency services and the people they are there to serve, according to FEMA.

The goal is for emergency personnel to train residents, members of various community organizations, and workplace employees in basic response skills. Graduates are integrated into the emergency response capability for a given locale.

"If a disastrous event overwhelms or delays the community's professional response, CERT members can assist by applying the basic response and organizational skills they learned during training," officials from FEMA pointed out. "These skills can help save and sustain lives until help arrives."

EACH CERT class covers disaster preparedness, fire safety, disaster medical operations, light search and rescue, team organization, disaster psychology, and dealing with terrorism threats and attacks.

Classes for this session began at 6 p.m. on January 20. Classes continue until 10 p.m., with a light dinner provided. Each student must attend all classes to qualify as a team member.

In addition to the initial session, classes have been scheduled for Feb. 2, 9, 17, 23, 25, and 28. The latter is graduation day.

"The teaching module under terrorism concentrates on how to respond to each type of disaster," Sisler noted. "An example was the recent train wreck in the city. The primary question quickly became 'was there a need to evacuate or not.'"

Sisler noted that everyone can play a role in CERT. "Some seniors have questioned their abilities to adequately perform in a disaster situation. CERT programs have a place and role for all ages."

That fact was buttressed by a member of the present CERT class, Bill Dickinson. "The whole idea behind this entire effort is how you can engage citizens in the most basic time of need — a disaster," he said.

"I'm familiar with other CERT programs elsewhere in the country. The secret is citizen involvement. When CERT and the Citizen Corps work it's because of citizen involvement," Dickinson emphasized.

He cited San Diego where the goal is to get at least 10 percent of the population CERT certified and actively involved in emergency preparedness. He also acknowledged, "It's good to have a public official actually involved," referring to Gaines' enrollment in the class. "Someone who is actually willing to walk-the-walk and not just talk-the-talk."

ANOTHER MEMBER of the new class, Pamela Alesky, a resident of the Watergate Condominium, appraised the effort as, "It's a really good way to prepare citizens for any type emergency." She based that evaluation on her experiences as a 20-year volunteer firefighter and a former member of the American Red Cross in International Policy.

"We are trying to establish a CERT at Watergate. This program is an excellent way to do it," she said. There are several Watergate residents in the present class.

Sisler verified, "This class has people from all sections of the city with all types of backgrounds. There are 19 females and 10 males ranging in age from their early 20's to seniors."

Christiano Marchiori, a major in the U. S. Air Force, five year Alexandria resident, and successful graduate of the initial CERT class in October, is a prime example of CERT diversification. "It was an excellent program and one I would strongly recommend to all my neighbors."

Marchiori was so impressed, he said, "I'm volunteering for the Fire Department's Citizen Academy. CERT also has refresher courses and I'm planning to attend those as well.

"We had such a good group at the initial class, we formed our own web site to communicate with one another," he said. "We were issued at Green helmet, goggles, gloves, and a green polo shirt with a CERT insignia upon graduation."

Each graduate also receives an instructional notebook with guidance on how to deal with various disaster scenarios.

Following their actual training, CERT members will be given periodic refresher courses, according to Sisler. "It will depend on how much each individual wants to remain involved. My goal is to keep in contact with all CERT members every 30 to 60 days. We are also planning to have on-going mock drills," he said.

Sisler noted, "There is a non-emergency role for CERT members. They can participate in special events such as staffing education tables at things like the Alexandria Red Cross Waterfront Festival and Art On The Avenue in Del Ray, participating in our smoke detector give-away program, and many other activities."

It is also Sisler's hope to present CERT programs to specific areas of the city and to individual organizations within the city.

"The goal is to have people on the ground in every section of the city in case of a disaster," Gaines emphasized.

"We see this effort and the reorganization as prioritizing emergency management as a prime responsibility. That responsibility is public safety," Gaines said.

To that end, Alexandria has recently hired Mark Penn as the new Emergency Management Coordinator. He begins February 2. There is also the addition of an Emergency Management Analyst. Life Safety Education will operate as an element of Emergency Management.

"All of this will function under the fire department," said Philip Sunderland, Alexandria City Manager. "We were very fortunate to have Mark take this new position."

Penn, an Alexandria resident, has been with the Arlington County Fire Department where he was first a firefighter then Fire Marshall, according to Sunderland. For the past several years he served as Arlington's Emergency Management Coordinator. His father once served as Alexandria Fire Chief, Sunderland pointed out.

"The Citizen Corps will be charged with assisting the public in preparing for emergencies by obtaining residents' input in the city's overall disaster response," said Barbara Gordon, public information officer, City Manager's Office. In addition to Gaines and Krupicka, there will be nine other Corps members appointed by Sunderland.

THEY WILL BE drawn from the Commission on Persons with Disabilities; Commission on Aging; Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross; Alexandria Interfaith Association; Alexandria Chamber of Commerce; City public schools; Emergency Management Services Council; and two representatives designated by the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations, one each from the east and west ends of the city.

Residents throughout the city will be invited to provide input to the new Citizen Corps Council. It will then present a report to City Council within one year of its initial meeting, according to Gordon. "We plan to take this program to citizens throughout the community in the months ahead," Gaines said.

For additional information on the CERT program and to apply on line, log onto www.cert@alexandria.va.us or phone 703-838-5594. There is information on the City web site at ci.alexandria.va.us. Go to fire and then emergency management.