CERT: ‘Making a difference when time is short’

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The city offers Community Emergency Response Team courses to teach residents what to do in case of an emergency; volunteers on the city’s team fill in the gaps that emergency personnel can’t always fill during a crisis.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

Living in what some consider paradise can come with a price. Malibu residents, who take pride in the rugged beauty of their surroundings, also face the reality of natural disasters as a regular part of life. But some, aware of the dangers, particularly the high risk of wildfires, are doing what they can to prepare to take action in the event of an emergency.

Since 2004, Malibu has offered Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) courses to residents who want to learn what to do when disaster strikes, and how to deal with medical and potentially hazardous situations they may encounter. The City of Malibu’s own CERT team consists of 80 volunteer members who help the city fill in the holes that first responders and other emergency personnel can’t always fill during a crisis.

These volunteers have contributed their services to the community on many occasions, including providing support during the fall 2007 fires, and are now working on new efforts to increase their community impact.

The CERT program was created by the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1985 and expanded to a national program by Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1993. In the aftermath of 9/11, then President George W. Bush made efforts to push funding toward programs that help civilians ready themselves for homeland emergency situations; CERT programs across the country increased.

In Los Angeles County alone there are roughly 40 cities that have CERT programs to date, and in the past three years the number of class offerings in the county has more than tripled, said Jeff Vrooman, Los Angeles County Fire Department CERT coordinator.

“The goal of the program is to build leadership within the community,” Vrooman said. “[It] gives people the courage not to wait for the city to respond, and to go knocking on doors and checking on people [by themselves].”

Malibu’s CERT program is unique, Vrooman said. Brad Davis, the city’s emergency services coordinator, was hired full time in 2004, one of the few cities to support such a position. Among other duties, Davis runs the CERT training program and the Malibu CERT Team. During an emergency, Davis directs the volunteers into action.

“Residents have a direct responsibility to know what they are doing around emergency preparedness,” Davis said. “It would not be wise to sit back and do nothing and have someone tell them what they need to know. They need to get involved.”

The Malibu CERT team is currently working to partner with Los Angeles County and state government officials to write a formal plan for developing a pet-friendly evacuation shelter, as residents are typically not allowed to bring their animals into a shelter during a disaster. Davis said the plan, which would be the first of its kind, has already received support for L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office and, if successful, will serve as a template for other cities.

The city’s CERT training classes are organized into seven sessions, totaling roughly 20 hours, and offered several times a year. The specifics of the course, while following CERT national protocol on set topics, are also tailored to the area the trainees reside in and the particular problems they may encounter there. The program in Malibu, thus, deals directly with such disasters as wildfires and landslides, whereas a program in West Hollywood, for example, may cover high-rise building evacuation, Vrooman said.

Post training, CERT trainees have the option of using the training for themselves and those nearby to start their own community team, or to work with the city as part of Malibu’s CERT team, which meets monthly. Davis said the team is also working directly with local homeowners associations to localize impact.

The Malibu team also recently developed a board of directors to help oversee team efficiency. Susan Tellem, a city council candidate last year, is on the board.

“The people who join CERT have a certain mindset: you go in to help take care of your family and you realize it’s more than helping them, it’s helping the community in a big way,” Tellem said. “It’s such a great course and it’s turning into a really valuable service for the city and residents.”

Vrooman said in Los Angeles County alone, trainees have been responsible for helping out in major situations like the Northridge Earthquake in 1994 and the 2008 Chatsworth Metro Rail crash, but said the program’s success is hard to measure, given that much of the CERT injury and fatality prevention is often conducted in people’s day-to-day lives and rarely makes news. Due to a cutback in federal funding, many localities are now playing more of a role in supporting and designing their own programs, including grassroots efforts at marketing, he added, and participation has increased.

“We encourage people to take the training and be self-reliant, but people could get themselves hurt if they aren’t careful, taking on the responsibilities normally taken on by the fire department,” Davis said. “This is an extraordinary group of human beings from every walk of life across Malibu … the [program] isn’t there to turn someone into a rescue hero; it’s there to help make a difference when time is short.”