Last Saturday afternoon, just after 1 p.m., Alexandria became a little safer. That was the time the Alexandria Fire Department graduated its second and, by far, largest CERT class.
Thirty citizens had undergone 20 intensive hours of training to become part of a nationwide effort to make communities better equipped to handle disasters and emergencies — natural or man made. They are now part of what is known as a Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT.
"This is one part of a major commitment to protect the community," Lieutenant Michael Cross, CERT instructor, told the class of 30 assembled at the department's training center in the Lee Recreation Center. "This day is all about you and what you have done," said Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris.
Prior to receiving their graduation certificates, Alexandria Mayor William Euille, told the graduates, "I'm here today on behalf of all my colleagues to thank you for wanting to be part of our team. We all hope you never have to be called upon. But it's always good to be prepared."
Jokingly, Euille told the class, "If you really want to be put to use, come to City Council meetings. There's a lot of rescuing necessary there."
One of those colleagues, referred to by Euille, was seated right in front him as a member of the CERT graduating class — Councilman Ludwig P. Gaines. "I'm proud to be a part of this class. We've gone from six graduates in the first class to a filled class this time," he said.
"We want to make sure everyone who wants to serve has a chance to do so," Gaines said. Gaines serves as co-chair of Alexandria's Citizens Corps Council, along with Councilman Rob Krupicka. Council reactivated the Citizen Corps Council in December.
"I am committed to citizen engagement in emergency preparedness and my participation is a hands-on reflection of that commitment. If I'm to help lead the city's emergency preparedness efforts, I can think of no better way than by working side by side with other concerned citizens on this important issue," Gaines said.
PRESENTING A certificate of graduation to each class member was the city's newly appointed Emergency Management Coordinator, Mark Penn, who operates under the aegis of the fire department. "What really excites me about the CERT program is the empowerment it gives to our citizens," Penn stressed.
Penn noted that he not only represents the city in his new capacity but also the governor as a member of the Virginia Corps, which, in turn, functions as the state element of America Corps/Freedom Corps. "Your civic pride and duty is needed every day," Penn said.
Along with their certificate, each member was presented a dark green polo shirt with the CERT emblem on it. They also get to keep their green hard hat, goggles and gloves which they used during their course of instruction and are issued certain additional equipment.
CERT training is not geared specifically to potential terrorist attacks. Rather, it focuses on emergency preparedness and gives structure to citizen involvement in emergency situations such as Hurricane Isabel.
"I thought the training was very thorough. It gave me great insight as to what to do in case of an emergency. It's always better to be prepared," said graduate Michael J. Eagan, Jr.
His analysis was seconded by graduates Diana Deming and Katherine Doster. "It was extraordinary. Something Alexandria absolutely needs. We feel like pioneers," Deming said.
"I'm thankful to be a part of the Citizens Corps, to be able to help my neighbors if necessary," Doster added. "This is my first time for any type of emergency training."
IN ADDITION TO Gaines, Egan, Deming, and Doster members of the class were: Jennifer Johnson, Angela Welsh, Harriet McGuire, Angela Palombaro, Mary Ursitti, Sally Jo Hahn, Phil Mullens, Diane Mullens, Angel Gonzalez, Charmaine Ingelton, Patsiann Misiti, Michelle Harrigan, Pamela Alesky, Greg Gutierrez, Averelle Talbot, Margaret French, Liz DiGregorio, Rita Tiefert, Deane Parker, Donald Smith, Richard Adamy, Todd Johnson, Elizabeth Smiley, Frank Ballenger, Eileen Ladino and Bill Dickinson.
The next class, which is already full, according to Richard Sisler, the department's public education officer and newly named Citizens Corps Liaison, is scheduled for April. Following that a fourth class will begin June 7. "Space is still available but it's filling up fast," Sisler acknowledged.
Anyone 16 and older can attend CERT training and become a CERT team member. CERT graduates will be offered 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 graduates every 30 to 60 days. We are also planning to have on-going mock drills," he said.