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Just in Case

Grant County graduates its first Community Emergency Response Team—just in time for one newly certified responder to help a friend with a house fire.

By Renée Despres

 

Heidi Sexton had barely hung up her new green hardhat when she received a frantic phone call from a friend. Sexton had to hear only five words—"My house is on fire!"—before she sprang into action.

CERT trainees practice putting out a fire. (Photo by Frank Kenney)

Just hours before, Sexton had completed training as a member of Grant County's first Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). During the course, she had learned how to prevent and prepare for potential disasters and how to assist professional emergency first responders during disasters.

Sexton was about to put her new skills to the test. Her friend had already called 911, and the fire department was on the way. So she drove to her friend's house and began to help. "Thanks to CERT training I was able to comfort the family and help keep rubber-neckers out of the way," she says. "Because we had networked with the Silver City Fire Department during the class, they recognized me, and I was allowed to approach the line and be a liaison, keeping the family updated on the status."

She also called the American Red Cross, which offered the family an array of resources including motel rooms, teddy bears and bags with essentials like toothbrushes, deodorant and soap. The Red Cross also provided a debit card to buy clothes, bedding and groceries.

Sexton was one of 20 Grant County residents to graduate from the eight-week CERT course this spring. The CERT program was developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1994. It's based on a model piloted in 1986 by the Los Angeles City Fire Department. The premise is simple: Local government agencies such as police, EMS and fire departments are designed to handle a certain number of emergencies each day. But in a mass disaster—for instance, a wildfire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, terrorist attack—those professional responders can quickly become overwhelmed, and citizens will need to help.

When emergency response officials in Los Angeles spent time looking at available resources in mass disasters like the 1994 earthquake there and the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, they found that emergency response systems were quickly stretched beyond capacity. Within 30 minutes, all professional emergency responders within an hour of the center of the event were engaged. Within three hours, all responders within 300 miles were engaged.

The officials also found that ordinary citizens were more than willing to help during a disaster. Without training, however, citizens may not be able to help effectively. Untrained volunteers may inadvertently place themselves and others in danger. These risks were underscored during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which killed more than 10,000 people and injured more than 30,000. Many citizens, although untrained, gathered to perform light search and rescue operations, in the process saving more than 800 lives. But more than 100 of these untrained volunteers were themselves killed during the 15-day rescue operation.

Based on this knowledge, the Los Angeles team designed an all-hazards training program that would teach people to respond to a disaster effectively and efficiently without placing themselves in unnecessary danger. The resulting program, CERT, teaches citizens how to protect themselves, their families, their neighbors and their neighborhoods in an emergency situation. It covers the basics: how to use a fire extinguisher (when's the last time you actually picked one up and used it? would you know how?), basic medical aid (could you recognize a life-threatening emergency, stop major bleeding, or open someone's airway?), and how to help professional emergency responders (do you know anything about crowd control?).

FEMA made CERT training available nationwide in 1993, and since then teams have been established in hundreds of communities in the United States and worldwide. As of January 2004, according to the Los Angeles CERT Web site, CERT training had been used in 50 states, three territories in the US and six other countries. Besides Grant County, New Mexico has two other CERT teams—one in Rio Rancho and one in Sierra County.

 

While CERT members are trained to help professional responders in case of a large-scale disaster, their skills also apply to emergencies that affect individuals, such as a heart attack or house fire. Sexton's ability to help her neighbor find the resources she needed in the midst of a personal tragedy is just one example of how CERT skills can be applied to small-scale disasters.

In the rural and frontier communities that dot Southwest New Mexico counties, even everyday emergency response poses challenges. For instance, it takes 45 minutes for the closest ambulance to reach the Gila Cliff Dwellings—if the trained and licensed volunteer EMTs who staff the ambulance happen to be home.

"In a rural, geographically large county such as Grant, where professional emergency response teams might be an hour or more away, CERT volunteers could make the difference between life and death," says Frank Kenney, chair of the Citizen Corps Council of Grant County (CCCGC), which sponsors CERT training in the county.

Kenney's vision of emergency preparedness spans geography, age and professions. "I'd love to see each school system with a CERT team composed of a mix of students, faculty and staff. Can you imagine having a CERT team at Silver, Cobre and Western New Mexico University?" he says. "And it would be neat to have a CERT team involved with any bigger organizations—for example, Phelps-Dodge. Ideally, we'll eventually have one CERT team for every volunteer fire department, all of which serve our most remote communities."

Grant County CERT member Larry Sullivan has seen both ends of the spectrum. Sullivan took his first CERT course in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. He retired a few years later and moved to Big Pine Key in Florida, where he became a volunteer firefighter and helped to organize CERT training. The area served by his fire department included the Florida Keys and the Everglades. "In that area, there's at least one natural disaster every single year, so you have a really motivated population," says Sullivan.

Sullivan's volunteer fire department also served one of the longest uninhabited stretches of US 1, the highway that links the Florida Keys to the mainland. If someone had serious trouble while driving—Sullivan grimaces at the memory of heart attacks—emergency response resources were far away. The situation is even more pronounced in Grant County. "Grant County is much like an island, in the sense that we're far away from metropolitan areas," he explains. "Professional responders won't get there fast enough most times. That's why we citizens need to be proactive and help ourselves.

"You don't have to have a disaster," Sullivan adds. "You can have ancillary problems, like floodwater or snarled traffic, and if somebody has a medical emergency, say in Rodeo, emergency responders won't be able to get to that person for hours. If a person in that community has even minimal levels of medical knowledge, they may be able to keep someone alive until the ambulance arrives."

For White Signal resident Carol Zimmer, taking the CERT training was "a no-brainer." Zimmer, already a member of the Tyrone Fire Department and a volunteer EMT, took the CERT course to broaden her skills and her contacts in the community. "It was an opportunity to connect with people and find out what's really happening in the community," says Zimmer. "I made a lot of new friends, new contacts, and came to a better understanding of where Grant County sits on many issues that concern me.

"CERT offers a new perspective because it's citizen-based," Zimmer goes on. "That wasn't part of the mix of emergency preparedness before. It's about getting the info back out to people like us."

Despite her already extensive training in emergency response, Zimmer found the CERT training extremely valuable. "They stress so much the preparation and the things that you need to do to be ready for any eventuality—first aid, defensible space around your home, having a 'go bag' prepared," she says. "If disaster strikes, hopefully I'll keep my wits about me, and I'll have a head start that will allow me maybe not only to take care of my family, but also to assist my community."

 

CERT members Carol and Tim Kane initially became involved because of Hurricane Katrina. "When we saw what happened in New Orleans and how the government 'responded,' we realized that if anything happened here, we'd be really on our own," he says.

When the Kanes moved to Silver City from Seattle in 2003, they immediately recognized wildfire as a tangible threat. They looked outside their house on North Swan Street and quickly realized that if a wildfire were to occur there were few escape routes. Three feeder roads serve the "south slope" into Silver City: Swan Street, Little Walnut and Cottage San/Alabama. "There's no secondary egress in the event a fire were to come from the north headed down that south slope," explains Tim. "There's no way to get out except to the south. And there's no fire station or substation on Swan."

"When I was trying to get homeowners insurance, the agent asked, 'Where's the nearest fire hydrant?' I could only say, 'Darned if I know,'" Carol recalls. She called the Pinos Altos volunteer fire department, which serves the area through its substation on Little Walnut. They didn't know, either.

"It seemed to us that the community generally was not very well prepared to combat wildfires, especially in the urban-wildland interface," says Tim. "We went to work creating defensible space around our house, but that doesn't help us a great deal if we just do ours and our neighbors aren't doing theirs."

Concerned, the Kanes joined emergency preparedness groups including the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and the CCCGC. When the chance to become trained in CERT arose, they signed up immediately. "The training sensitizes you to things you might not otherwise be sensitive to," Tim says, "Many true emergencies could occur here—chemical spills, wildfires, earthquakes." (At a reporter's raised eyebrows, he pauses to explain that last reference: "It's actually a real threat. If you look at the geology of the area, you'll see that we're at the other end of the western plate, the eastern side of the San Andreas Fault.")

He concludes simply, "We wanted to know what to do."

But saving people is only half the problem, at least in Carol's eyes. Spurred on by her love of horses, Carol Kane has been working with the Gila Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of New Mexico to develop a disaster evacuation plan for large animals in Grant County. The plan is still under development, an outgrowth of the Kanes' involvement in citizen preparedness.

Carol's voice grows passionate as she recounts the story of hundreds of horses after Katrina. "Did you know that 80 percent of all the horses released during Katrina in the Louisiana and Mississippi area were unidentified upon capture? They had no marking whatsoever to identify who their owner was." She suggests several methods for identifying horses, including branding or even something as simple as an identification tag braided into the mane.

 

Rick Duntz, interim director of the Grant County Office of Emergency Management, welcomes the CERT team—as a matter of fact, he took the training himself. "It's instrumental that as many people as possible in Grant County get involved," says Duntz. "We are so spread out geographically that people often must rely on other community members who can lend a hand, and who are available quickly."

To Duntz, the CERT program is important not only because of the skills it teaches, but because it encourages people to join other volunteer efforts around the community. "The CERT program builds cohesiveness among community members," says Duntz. "Our goal is to continue to extend the numbers of people taking the class so that every citizen is better educated about disaster preparedness. CERT is a free, educational curriculum that offers a good background base knowledge of first aid, incident command and disaster preparedness in general—whatever the threat to the community is."

On CERT graduation day, those 20 everyday citizens showed that they had formed a community team. Amidst an array of makeshift backboards, fire extinguishers and emergency drills, the team members demonstrated their capabilities.

"As we all graduated from our first Grant County CERT class, never did I think that I would have to use some of my training on the first day nor did I think it would be with my good friend," says Sexton, "Catastrophe is never welcomed, but when it hits, thank God for ways to ease the pain."

CERT training is offered regularly in Grant County. The course is free and open to all comers. For more information, contact Frank Kenney at 388-2523 or rsvpgrant@zianet.com.

Renée Despres is a freelance writer with more than 15 years experience and more than 300 articles published in regional and national media including National Public Radio, Salon.com, Runner's World, Troika, Delicious Living and World Book Science Year. Despres is currently senior health editor at www.ehealthmd.com and also lends a hand as outreach coordinator for the CCCGC, which provided CERT training in Grant County.

 

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