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 2001                                              Volume 3   Number 1

Rick Tobin, CEM, President, TAO Emergency Management Consulting, El Dorado, California

There is no such thing as a lightning-proof building. There is no such thing as a disaster-proof community. We can, however, build resistance and sustainability into a building. We can also make our country disaster resistant. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) idea is a key building block to the future survivability of our culture during times of natural disaster, which are surely heading our way. The time to build that survivability is now, during times of economic growth and well-being, through a national program of education that is mandatory in every public high school in the United States.

The first experience I had with a CERT program occurred in the early 1990's, while working on a disaster After Action Report for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. I was deeply impressed when local government officials described what a CERT program had done for the community during the time of a disaster. I did a brief fiscal assessment of CERT as a cost-effective form of preparedness, response and recovery. It seemed relevant for all California communities. My brief study showed that CERT provided at least $10 savings for every dollar invested in developing the local programs. Unfortunately, my findings did not compete well to catch the interest of California State emergency management as one disaster after another soon fell upon California (earthquakes, floods, fires, droughts--California is the e-ticket ride for Mother Nature's wrath).
What is the challenge of establishing CERT not just locally, but nation wide?

In the years since, CERT professionals have nurtured the program into a mature, highly valued process--one now supported by many state emergency programs and FEMA. However, there remains a concern about continuity and support of the CERT goals, which is always a risk if there are inadequate numbers of participants. This is true of any non-profit venture. Volunteers are the heart of the matter, but they are also the greatest challenge. It seems obvious that a wider perspective is needed for developing an educated, responsive volunteer base for disaster operations. The American Red Cross has worked towards this for many years. The Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts have a proud tradition of also developing youth with a sound understanding of preparedness. However, those programs alone have not built the base of understanding necessary for an entire nation…or necessarily directed towards the specific hazards of each unique community. There has to be a more consistent, relevant pathway for CERT to continue through generation after generation, even as residents of a community move.

What kind of coalition should be formed to build a national CERT program?

I propose a broad-based support coalition, with a Congressional mandate for support from every public school system in the United States which receives federal funding. Where is there a predecessor for this mandate? Some high schools have required high school graduates to prove their ability to swim, to use firearms, or to drive a car correctly. With these examples as precedence, high schools should also be able to establish a minimum of CERT core training for all graduates. A coalition of interested organizations can develop the curriculum and core objectives of the training. The vast network will provide building blocks for a national design and overview structure. This will be supported by local community based organizations that can further increase the relevance of local concerns by adopting and adapting the national curriculum in coordination with local school districts. 

The national sponsorship of the program should come from (some already support CERT):

  • National Education Association
  • National Parent Teacher Association
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • National Emergency Managers Association
  • Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America
  • National 4-H
  • National Future Farmers of America
  • Boys and Girls Clubs
  • National Fire Protection Association
  • National Fire Chiefs Association
  • National Sheriffs Association
  • National Police Officers Association of America
  • American Federation of Police
  • Police Executive Forum
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • U.S. Public Health Service
  • National Disaster Medical System
  • National Red Cross

Isn’t this similar to the mandatory military training that was thoroughly rejected in the 1960's and 1970's? 

No. This is survival training for a country that is bound to have serious challenges to the fabric of community stability from large catastrophic events in the next 20 years. That is not a prediction. This is a fact, and everyone in emergency management should be aware of it. If we really believe in the core values of emergency management, we must believe in mitigation. CERT is a critical factor for establishing reasonable assuredness that citizens can take care of themselves during times of severe crisis, until government can mount enough resources to support all public needs. Government infrastructure cannot be everywhere at once in a large regional earthquake, after a Level-5 hurricane, or from massive flooding that spreads rapidly over several states. A well-informed and trained citizenry is the only answer that makes sense.
How would the program work? 
Freshman and sophomore students in all public high schools would be required to provide proof that they had taken the basic CERT training and performed in one exercise in both their freshman and sophomore years. They would also be required to show a growing level of proficiency between the two years. Assignments would be appropriate to the interests, skills and capabilities of each student. The training would also be flexible to include students with disabilities that restrict mobility, but would also allow them training on how to help themselves in serious events should they be isolated from assistance. The training would also focus on service to the community. CERT training will prepare students to support themselves, their families and neighbors during disasters. They may also become better citizens in years to come and continue their CERT participation--one of the key challenges for the volunteer process. They may continue to search out the CERT process in whatever community they move to during their adult years. It builds both key skills and a national camaraderie that are sorely needed. 
How would this program be funded? 
That is always a serious question. One strategy is for the federal government to provide funds directly to state school superintendents. This should not be a 75/25 match. School districts are already stretched to the limit for providing mandated programs. But since this program will be fully funded by federal taxes there will be a need for quality controls. There will also need to be strict reporting criteria to ensure the programs are actually funded and being implemented as directed under the congressional mandate. Specific monitoring or auditing will be mandatory and supported by federal funding. This may become an external, independent process if any of the national supporting organizations wish to assume that role. There should also be a consideration for further support from the private sector as a bridge to continuing private-public partnerships, e.g., Project Impact communities.
Will students accept a CERT program as a part of their education?

Some state universities and colleges are now training students on campus using the CERT program.  It is still voluntary at the higher education level.  But why not have a more advanced level of training available for higher education that meshes with training the students received in their high schools across the country?  The time is right to see the value of this integration and develop programs now that will ensure a high level of confidence that the quality assurance and quality control in the CERT programs will be prevalent across the United States.

Can CERT programs fulfill a deeper need of our students?

I had a recent conversation with my niece. I was concerned about the level of doubt and depression I often encountered in young people. It made no sense in a culture that wasn’t facing a mandatory military draft, a financial recession, or a serious devastating disease outbreak. She explained that many students now felt that what they did made no difference, that they would never be able to find jobs, and never own a home. I asked her what made her more positive. She was very clear—volunteerism. She said it forced her to look out from her personal problems to those with more serious ones, and sometimes she could actually help others to find real solutions. CERT is a perfect model to address this desire by young people to find meaning and service. I have had numerous experiences with high school students in big exercises, where they acted the role of disaster victims, or in field assessment and first aid. They can do a tremendous job if they are trained, supported and provided with solid leadership

Are there other implications to CERT training that enhance the program's value?
The more the next generation has exposure to first response organizations—fire, law enforcement and medical—the more support there will be to maintain CERT organizations in the future.  In addition, without this exposure, local funding may dry up at the ballot box for first response organizations, should the new electorate have no idea what services these groups provide.  Meaningful cooperative experiences with the first response community during CERT training may mean the stability of community infrastructure.   
The time for CERT is now. Write to your Senator and Representative to start the national training movement! Write to the President! And, begin discussions with your school boards and local first response organizations. Help save the future we will all be sharing.


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