Prior to a disaster, public safety officials try to equip residents with the proper information and resources to survive catastrophe. Some communities are cultivating a volunteer-driven response by training citizens how to act during an emergency. These initiatives—such as the Citizen Preparedness Corps in New York, Operation Rescue Ready in Virginia and FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT)—are intended to help communities withstand the interim between disaster and the arrival of first responders.
Community response teams assist professionals
The idea for CERT was first conceived by the City of Los Angeles in 1985, after studying community response to natural disasters in Japan and Mexico. The city aggressively funded citizen training following the Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987, recognizing the importance of preparing citizens to deal with emergencies—such as earthquakes and wildfires—in the absence of emergency workers. Building on the early success of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Disaster Preparedness Unit, FEMA made CERT training available nationally in 1993. Over the decade that followed, CERT expanded to include all 50 states, three territories and six foreign countries.
CERT-trained individuals are prepared to provide immediate assistance to area victims. Following intense instruction by emergency experts, team members become local leaders for their families and neighbors. They can help organize volunteers who have not previously been trained to collect disaster intelligence for professional responders when they arrive. Although there are no expectations that citizens should put themselves in danger, either in training or during an emergency, CERT participants are urged to consider themselves disaster workers.
In April 2013, CERT members living in West, Texas, responded to a chemical plant explosion. According to the CERT National Newsletter, local volunteers assisted emergency responders by providing critical access to supplies needed to aid in relief efforts. They also tracked responder time to ensure safety and accountability.
“The CERT teams [that helped in the aftermath] had never been involved in a large-scale disaster and only had training and exercises they participated in to fall back on,” explained Boyce Wilson, the regional program manager for the Heart of Texas Regional Citizen Corps Council, in CERT’s national newsletter. “The tireless efforts of the volunteers made the difference.”
Community training differs by location, as certain regions are more prone to particular disasters than others. Citizens in Los Angeles may learn how to deal with the aftermath of an earthquake, while those living in the Midwest may gear training more toward tornado relief.
Unprepared volunteers put themselves and others at risk
People are willing to provide assistance to others during an emergency, regardless of whether they know what they’re doing. Following an earthquake in Mexico City, a group of inexperienced volunteers jumped at the opportunity to help their fellow man. While more than 800 people were saved, however, 100 of these volunteers lost their lives during the attempt.
When Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast in October 2012, more than 100,000 homes were destroyed. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, and 13 million residents of New York were impacted by the disaster. FEMA estimated that recovery following Sandy required more than $8.8 billion in federal assistance. Thousands of volunteers—both citizens and trained professionals—aided during the recovery process. According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, more than 30,000 people stepped up to help, despite the fact that many had no formal training to do so.
To ensure citizens living in New York are better prepared to handle future storms, Governor Andrew Cuomo created the Citizens Preparedness Corps. Participants are trained by members of the National Guard to survive the aftermath of a disaster, including learning which supplies to include in an emergency go-to bag. Residents will learn how to help their community live without the assistance from emergency responders for up to 10 days.
In his 2014 State of the State Address, Cuomo explained the goal of the corps:
“We want to train 100,000 citizens in the state of New York by year’s end so people know how to provide services in their own home for their own family and then they can be helpful on their own block and in their own community.”
Better prepared citizens can significantly increase a community’s chances of fewer casualties and a quick recovery following such a disaster. According to Oswego County Today, more than 10,000 people have already taken courses offered by the state, something officials believe will make a significant impact on citizens’ abilities to assist with the next disaster response.
Jerome Hauer, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Homeland Security, claims this preparation translates to survival for potential victims of a range of disasters.
“If you’re prepared for the three or four worst-case scenarios in your county, you can handle anything,” Hauer told WSKG. “Because it’s always easier to scale back the response than to find out you’re underprepared and that you don’t have the right response.”
Driven by the desire to help those in need, volunteers will always appear in response to a catastrophe. By taking steps to ensure that these generous people are well-prepared to provide emergency assistance, communities can prevent actions that serve to endanger the lives of both disaster victims and volunteers. Fewer casualties means professional responders can secure the area more quickly and help the community more toward recovery.
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