Community emergency response team

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A community emergency response team (CERT) is a group of amateur emergency workers. They are usually neighbors. Under good doctrine, they receive professional mass training and become official auxiliaries to local government emergency services in times of emergency.

The theory behind CERT is based on a simple observation: In major emergencies, professional emergency services overload instantly.

For example, in a city with 100,000 people, usually only 5 fire-stations and two police stations are staffed, with perhaps 40 fire-fighters and police on duty. This is adequate for normal emergencies, rescues and crimes.

However, in a mass emergency, such as flood, hurricane, tsunami, earthquake or nuclear attack, professional emergency workers cannot respond to more than a tiny fraction of the needs. The telephones fail from overload. Roads, bridges, electricity and other services fail, hampering their effectiveness, and interfering with fuel and material supplies.

In these environments CERTs can be far more effective than untrained civilians. With less than 40 hours of training, an amateur disaster service worker becomes qualified to perform about 95% of needed emergency services. This means that 95% of the rescues and life-saving first-aid procedures are far more likely to be completed in the "golden day," the first 24 hours when rescues and first-aid are most likely to succeed.

Physical fitness is not required for most CERT training or emergency activities. CERT members are instead trained to avoid hazards, and assign strenuous tasks to younger or fit members of the team.

In a major emergency, the community needs mass emergency services. Although amateurs are not able to work as skillfully as professionals, they are immensely better than nothing.

CERT organization

A local government, usually a city, divides its territory into neighborhoods. It then attempts to recruit a CERT in each neighborhood. Most governments with CERTs maintain a full-time community-service person as liason to the volunteers that perform much of the rest of the organization.

CERTs provide their own personnel, supplies, tools, organization and equipment, but they are activated, trained, celebrated and liased by the government. They are temporary volunteer government workers, usually organized as auxiliaries to the fire department. In some areas, (such as California) during declared disasters, registered, activated CERT members are eligible for worker's compensation for on-the-job injuries.

A CERT consists of a neighborhood leader, block leaders, street teams, and specialist teams for search-and-rescue, first-aid, planning, communication, logistics, and shelter.

The city directly liases with the neighborhood CERT leader through the CERT's organic communication team. In wealthy areas the communications may be by amateur radio, or dedicated telephone or fire-alarm networks. In poor areas, relays of bicycle-equipped runners can effectively carry mail between the districts and the city's emergency operations center.

The CERT's block leaders and street teams provide true local organization with in-depth local knowledge that can quickly locate injured persons and dangers, and communicate with the neighborhood and professional emergency workers. They take the information back to the neighborhood leader, who assigns persons to the needs of the moment.

The Community Emergency Response

In an emergency, the first step is for CERT members to rescue themselves and their families.

Next they go to their team's neighborhood "command post," established at earlier meetings. The object is to centralize and prioritize resources. This one step is the single most powerful act of a CERT. The CERT command post is always marked by a flag, sign or tabard to help people locate it.

The leader (selected at an earlier meeting) assigns street teams to systematically assess every building in the neighborhood and report back. Meanwhile, the neighborhood leader assigns people to specialist teams. Generally, a trained and untrained person, or a fit and unfit person are paired. If the teams lack trained staff, the leader rips out sections of the notebook acquired during his training, and the teams self-train. The notebooks include check-lists and procedures. Literacy is both assumed and essential.

When the leader takes charge and a communications person is present, the team reports that it started-up to the city's emergency operations center.

In a good team, various families have agreed to loan supplies, tools and equipment to the team in an emergency. They bring these to the logistic team, who issues them. Logistics people also canvass new people for needed tools, food, water, tents, paper, field commodes and other needs listed by the planners.

When the street and block assesments come back, the planners try to track current problems and anticipate future needs so the leader can assign teams well. Usually the critical planning aid is a couple of greaseboards (which work in rain).

The assessments include details like addresses of: destroyed buildings, unrescued persons, and hazards, as well as people who need immediate professional care.

The communicators send a digested summary of damage and critical injuries to the city's emergency operations center. The 5% of rescues that require professional training and equipment are also reported in the summary.

Soon, the CERT begins rescues, and brings injured people to the first-aid station. Planners track the injuries, especially injuries requiring immediate professional care. The communicators inform the city when local rescues are complete, and give an updated summary of severe injuries and damaged buildings.

At some point, a fire or police team may appear at the command post. The planners and leader can brief them. This saves them huge amounts of time, and directs them to important problems.

Eventually, the city's emergency operations center tells the CERT where the severely injured people can be taken for medical care. The logistics people recruit vehicles, the leader assigns drivers and first-aid people, and the severe injuries are evacuated.

Throughout, shelter workers register people and children so family members can find them, and feed and house people and (if possible) pets (in tents, eventually).

The result is not professional, but it's much better than an unorganized mob.


CERT training is easy for government. The training can be organized as mass-classes using pre-existing training facilities. Training usually combines expert lecturers and self-study materials with hands-on classes in small groups with previously-trained CERT volunteers. The result is a very good value for the cost.

Most effective programs run a program on a very predictable schedule so civilians can locate the training. For example, one effective format has a four-hour training program on first Saturday morning of each month.

About 1% of adults will train simply because the training is available. More will train if the area is prone to periodic disasters, or the government effectively recruits public-service groups and schools. Civilians are recruited with advertising in schools, businesses, parks, recreation programs, libraries, and open-houses for fire and police departments.

CERT participation becomes much wider if the recruiting and training is made into a social occasion. One of the best social recruiting method is to ask trainees to go door-to-door in their neighborhoods. This mobilizes CERT trainees to establish neighborhood teams. Typically, the volunteer distributes flyers that offer a "yard party" on a patriotic holiday, and then hosts it. If you offer food, they come, and after that, the neighborhood at least knows where to go. The flyers usually also give the schedules of training sessions. The social occasion gives people a place to meet and lets interested persons find each other and organize.

The first step of each training meeting is always to register attendees. A notice and newsletter is mailed to previous attendees to arrive just before the next training session. The city also uses attendance to certify people, giving the city a database of trained volunteers.

As a last step, before graduating and certifying volunteers that complete the training, the city can run a criminal check on them. This means that even criminals can train (they need disaster preparation, too!), but the city can avoid depending on them.

During registration, the trainee gets a name tag, with a colored dot, or group number.

As part of registration, the trainee collates a self-training booklet for the current class, and adds it to the notebook binder he was requested to bring to each session. This notebook eventually forms an important resource to help remember procedures in a real disaster. It also assures that a trainee has an exact, valuable record of the areas in which he was trained- many trainees make up missed classes in order to fill their notebook.

The CERT organization may run a lottery to encourage attendance. The tickets are given at registration. The premiums are given after the training, and may include items purchased by the government (tools or supplies) as well as commercial promotional offerings from local businesses, such as free lunches or sample products.

After this, the group splits in three or four parts and trains. Training sessions usually include: "need for disaster preparedness", "preparing for a disaster", "fire safety and fire-extinguisher use", "first aid", "triage", "cardiopulmonary resuscitation", "logistics and communication", "sheltering", "search and rescue", "team organization" and graduation.

In some areas, auxiliary classes are offered to train communicators, radiological safety officers, shelter cooking and organization, CPR and first-aid.

After the training, the lots are drawn and the premiums are distributed.

After a trainee graduates, and passes the background check, they may get distinctive clothing or a protective helmet.