Preparing for the Worst

Preparing for the Worst

Training prepares residents for local disasters, attacks.

With smoke still pouring out of a nearby barrel, Jennifer Beinhacker watched her neighbors rush into a building to rescue a firefighter, trapped under rubble from a collapsed wall.

Fortunately the grisly scene was just a training exercise, but Beinhacker, a Fairlington resident, remembered how realistic the exercise had been. “It was enormously helpful,” she said. “It took everything we were taught in the classroom and brought it into reality.”

Arlington’s emergency responders, from the fire and police departments, received international recognition for the way they handled disasters on Sept. 11. Officials continue working to ensure police and fire personnel have the best training and most up-to-date equipment possible. But a county program is also helping regular citizens like Beinhacker learn how to handle emergency situations.

This weekend, 15 residents of Fairlington and Shirlington completed final training exercises for the Community Emergency Response Team, graduating from the program Saturday, April 5.

Arlington is the first jurisdiction in the Capital area to provide CERT training, a curriculum created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency designed to teach residents how to deal with emergency situations such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Taught by members of the Arlington Fire Department, Community Resiliency Project and the Arlington Volunteer Fire Department, the course also shows Arlingtonians how to protect their families, homes and workplaces.

Demand for the program is already high – in addition to the 15 who graduated Saturday, 71 residents have completed the program since it began in September 2002. Classes beginning next month will train another 24, and four sessions scheduled for September-December 2003 are also already booked solid.

TRAINING TAKES PLACE over eight sessions, each two-and-a-half hours long, and covers a variety of topics from medical treatment and disaster psychology to identifying possible fire hazards and terrorist targets.

Collette Yoshida, one of Saturday’s CERT graduates, said the training helped her learn not just what to do, but what not to do in an emergency situation. “A lot of it is common sense, but it’s good to have someone point that out to you,” she said.

Indeed, as M.T. Orloski, an Arlington firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician, quizzed residents Saturday about proper procedure for extinguishing a fire, he reminded them that the first step is to call 911. They should also check the gauge on any fire extinguisher before rushing toward a fire, he said. If the extinguisher hasn’t been properly filled it does no good.

Participants said they hoped such reminders would help them stay calm if they ever find themselves in a real emergency. “You never know what that’s going to be like until you actually do it,” Yoshida said.

EXPERTS UNDERSTAND the difference between theory and action. That’s why participants go through a series of mock disaster exercises in the final training session. “They get to put all their skills together,” said Capt. Clare Halsey, deputy coordinator of emergency services for the Fire Department.

The exercises were challenging not just because they put theory into practice, some participants said. “It was very physical,” said Lisa Laparan, a Shirlington resident.

Shirlington and Fairlington residents completed the course together because officials believe CERT teams will help organize their own neighborhoods and keep residents calm and safe in the event of an emergency.

“It’s still a very small group,” said participant Gene Cowan, but officials hope a small team of trained residents in each neighborhood can make a big difference.

TRAINING TEAMS in CERT classes is just one effort to improve the county’s emergency preparedness. Stephen Holl, now serving as the acting police chief, is the county’s resident expert on the subject.

During the heightened terror alert, police officials test communications equipment, he said, and stay in daily contact with other law enforcement agencies in the region, like the FBI. Officers also are performing more checks at “critical locations” throughout the county.

The county is not putting extra officers on the street and is not extending shifts, in part because those can be cost lots of money on an extended basis. “There was a lot of talk [about federal funding] but it doesn’t seem like many of those dollars have found their way down to the street,” Holl said.

Arlington has received $16 million for costs incurred as part of the response to Sept. 11 and as partial reimbursement for the sniper investigation.

THAT MONEY DOESN’T go far. New York state officials have complained that high-risk areas like New York City aren’t getting a fair share of federal funding.

County Manager Ron Carlee didn’t dispute that funding is an issue, but hesitated to question how federal funds are distributed. “Before I would whine, I would say the federal government has not yet provided adequate resources for first responders,” he said. “The federal government has a long way to go.”

Halsey said expanding CERT training is a goal, but funding isn’t the limiting factor. “Right now it’s not a finance issue, it’s more a logistics issue,” she said.

Finding classroom space and enough instructors has proved difficult. About 30 firefighters and EMTs have taught classes so far, but most of the department is too busy with their regular duties to add CERT instruction, Halsey said.

Officials are hoping to get citizen instructors in the future and are counting on continued support from volunteer fire fighters. They“have really stepped up,” Halsey said.