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How to Set Up a Community Emergency Response Team

Written by Ryan Strait

Every municipality needs a trained community emergency response team in case a local disaster strikes.
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You never know when an emergency will strike your community—which is why early preparation, community education, and constant vigilance are essential to keeping citizens safe. One of the most effective ways of preparing your citizens for a possible disaster, is to involve them directly in the education, and response process. If your municipality has not already established a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), learn what it takes to effectively implement a CERT that enables your citizens to become an active part of their safety and preparedness.

About CERTs

CERTs help to educate citizens about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact your community, and train them in basic disaster response skills. CERTs are composed of citizen volunteers who actively participate in classroom exercises to learn key emergency response skills, and commit to helping serve their community following a disaster activity when professional responders are not immediately available.

Properly trained CERT members can serve as extensions of professional emergency teams, giving critical support to first responders, providing immediate assistance to victims, organizing spontaneous volunteers at a disaster site, and helping with non-emergency projects that help improve the safety of the community.

CERT History

The CERT concept was initially developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) in 1985 after the Whittier Narrows earthquake of 1987. This devastating event demonstrated the need for training civilians to serve an active role in the immediate response to community disasters, and to do so in a safe and informed manner. Recognizing the importance of preparing citizens for unexpected disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Emergency Management Institute (EMI), and the National Fire Academy adopted and expanded the CERT training program. Since 1993 when CERT training was made available nationally by FEMA, communities in 28 states and Puerto Rico have conducted CERT training.

CERT Training

CERT training courses should be instructed by a trained team of professional first responders who have completed a CERT Train-the-Trainer course conducted by their state training office for emergency management, or by FEMA's Emergency Management Institute (EMI). Communities should encourage any and all citizens to take the CERT course to become better educated on how to respond immediately after a disaster to protect themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their community.

How to Set Up a CERT in Your Community

1. Start by identifying the program goals depending on the potential hazards in your community. For example, your community may need to particularly focus on tornado preparations, hurricane preparedness, or emergency snow removal.

2. Engage your community’s appointed and elected officials to gain support for establishing a CERT in your community.

3. Identify emergency response leaders in your community to complete the CERT train-the-trainer certification.

4. Promote your CERT program using multiple communication channels, and recruit potential participants. Focus your recruitment efforts on community groups, business and industry workers, and staff within your own local government administration.

Civic Tip: As part of your community emergency preparation strategy, be sure to also create a crisis communication plan. Click here to learn more.

5. Once your CERT trainers are educated and established, build a regular, recurring schedule to hold CERT training. Focus initially on holding an annual training session, and then consider adding sessions throughout the year based on the size of your community and your citizens’ interest level. Be sure to invite past participants to future sessions as part of their refresher training.

6. The CERT training for community groups is usually delivered in 2 1/2 hour sessions, one evening a week over a seven-week period. The training consists of the following:

Session I Disaster Preparedness: Addresses hazards to which people are vulnerable in their community. Materials cover actions that participants and their families take before, during and after a disaster.

Session II Disaster Fire Suppression: Briefly covers fire chemistry, hazardous materials, fire hazards and fire suppression strategies. The primary focus is on the safe use of fire extinguishers, sizing up the situation, controlling utilities and extinguishing a small fire.

Session III Disaster Medical Operations Part I: Participants practice diagnosing and treating airway obstruction, bleeding, and shock by using simple triage and rapid treatment techniques.

Session IV Disaster Medical Operations Part II: Covers evaluating patients by doing a head to toe assessment, establishing a medical treatment area, performing basic first aid, and practicing in a safe and sanitary manner.

Session V Light Search and Rescue Operations: Participants learn about search and rescue planning, size-up, search techniques, rescue techniques and, most important, rescuer safety.

Session VI Disaster Psychology and Team Organization: Covers signs and symptoms that might be experienced by the disaster victim and worker. It addresses CERT organization and management principles and the need for documentation.

Session VII Course Review and Disaster Simulation: Participants review their answers from a take home examination and practice the skills that they have learned during the previous six sessions in disaster activity.

7. Recognize CERT members for completing their training. Provide them with identification cards, vests, helmets, or other applicable recognition materials.

8. Keep CERT members engaged. A successful CERT program requires ongoing fresher training and team engagement. Encourage CERT members to be prominent in the community by sponsoring events such as emergency response drills, neighborhood clean-up events, and creating educational content that can be shared on your local government website.

Additional Resources

Click here for more information for registering your CERT with FEMA.

Click here for more CERT training materials available from FEMA.

Click here for the FEMA CERT Workplace Starter Guide.

Remember that a key component of a successful community emergency response program involves an effective emergency warning system. If you haven’t already invested in such a system, click below to take a five-minute self-guided tour of our CivicReady® mass notification solution built for local government.

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