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CERT Helps Citizens Prepare for Emergency Situations

Training provides hands-on disaster response skills.

CERT teachers include members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue who are experienced in emergency response. Here, instructors guide a group of students at a CERT class on May 12.

CERT teachers include members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue who are experienced in emergency response. Here, instructors guide a group of students at a CERT class on May 12. Photo by Janelle Germanos.

Steve Willey, a member of Virginia Task Force One and lead instructor of Fairfax County’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), acknowledges that the police and fire department are dependable in the community after a major disaster.

But, it’s important to be prepared, since police and fire and rescue are sent first to major incidents, making it important for community members to take control of their own safety. That’s where CERT comes in.

CERT classes, taught by firefighters and trained leaders, provide students with 20 hours of training. Class members learn practical skills and practice them in a hands-on setting. CERT trains citizens how to be prepared and help their families, neighbors and themselves in a disaster situation.

“You learn everything from how to prepare for a disaster to how to conduct search and rescues to how to take care of pets during a disaster,” said Missy Tuttle-Ferrio, the lead CERT coordinator.

THE CLASSES, which are taught year round at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy as well as locations throughout the community, teach students not only how to prepare themselves for a disaster, but also how to help their community after an incident.

For example, students learn about search and rescue techniques, and even practice on model buildings also used by students of the Fire and Rescue Academy.

During the May 12 class of the spring session of CERT at the Fire and Rescue Academy, Mike Fogy taught students about the ins and outs of incident command, complete with several zombie references. After the lecture, students put on their gear, which includes a vest, helmet, goggles, gloves, and knee pads, and began the hands-on lesson to practice what they just learned.

Forgy, who has first-hand experience from his part in rescue efforts at the World Trade Center and Haiti, said the classes help members be prepared for events such as the Derecho that occurred a few years ago.

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CERT students enter a model building to practice how they would respond in a real-life emergency situation.

“It teaches them how to look for top priorities after a disaster situation in their neighborhood,” Forgy said. “If you’re not thinking ahead, you’re going to be behind.”

Willey brings first-hand experience as a command officer in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and as a first responder in a variety of disaster responses.

At the end of the session, students participate in a final exercise in a huge area at the site of the former Lorton Prison. They must determine their priorities as they rescue victims from a disaster scenario, which could be anything from a hurricane to an earthquake.

“It makes it feel like it’s a real disaster,” Tuttle-Ferrio said. “At first they have a huge rush of adrenaline, but then their training kicks in.”

Anyone over the age of 18 who lives, works or worships in Fairfax County is eligible to enroll in CERT. But for those who can’t take a class just yet, instructors urge residents to be prepared with a 72-hour kit.

“You can get by without power, but not without food or water. Having a 72-hour kit ensures you have what you need,” Willey said.

SOME STUDENTS love the class so much that they say they want to become firefighters. Others do it because they want to give back to the community. Regardless of what they get out of the class, Tuttle-Ferrio says that most of the students have to work on not being nervous during a drill.

“Everyone is nervous at first, but with more training, it goes away,” she said. “It can be very stressful, especially with the victim-actors because it makes it seem more realistic.”

CERT, which was established in Fairfax County in 2003, is a nationwide program that began in a 1985 earthquake preparation initiative held by the Los Angeles Fire Department. It is run by the Federal Emergency Management Association.

The next session of CERT classes begins May 21 at the Greater Springfield Fire Department. To register, visit http://volunteer.fairfaxcounty.gov.