During Tropical Storm Irene and its aftermath, countless volunteers stepped forward to help their neighbors and support their community. With little experience, training, or organization, volunteers managed to accomplish everything from feeding displaced people as well as other volunteers, to the cleanup of flooded homes and businesses, despite chaotic conditions.
Watching the initial volunteer response from her post at the Red Cross shelter, Jeanette Toro-Linnehan realized that, with a little training and organization, the volunteer effort could have operated more smoothly and accomplished more. “The people who responded were phenomenal,” says Toro-Linnehan. “But some people didn’t know where to go, and who to talk to. Some people wanted to volunteer, but they didn’t know what to do. During the first 72 hours of an emergency, you have to be able to stand alone. We did OK, but we could have done better.”
Later, during an after-action review, incident leaders noted that having people who know how to organize and how to work within a chain of command would be a great asset in the event of another disaster. “It would have been nice to have more of a team approach. It would have made that chaos in the first day or so much easier. The response was great, but it could have been easier if there were people who knew how to work in that kind of command system, instead of everyone heading to the fire chief or the police chief. People didn’t understand incident command.”
When she brought the idea up during the FEMA Long Term Recovery Planning process, someone mentioned establishing a CERT, Community Emergency Response Team. The first CERT was created in 1985 by the Los Angeles City Fire Department, and several federal agencies, including FEMA, have been active in promoting it. Local CERT instructors teach community volunteers in a variety of subjects, including disaster preparedness, basic fire suppression, medical response, search and rescue, disaster psychology, and team organization. Toro-Linnehan says the training only takes 20 hours. “It’s a good curriculum, and hits on a lot of the things that people in our group said we need.”
In the event of a disaster, trained teams can be called upon to supplement and support emergency responders. The teams can provide immediate assistance to disaster victims in their area, organize other volunteers, and collect information to help incident commanders allocate resources.
Toro-Linnehan discovered that there was a Windham County CERT already established by the sheriff’s department. “I didn’t realize it, but their CERT had already responded to Wilmington during Irene and during ice storms. They were at the (Deerfield Valley Farmers’ Day) fair.”
Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark agreed to provide training for the Deerfield Valley team.
The training is free for the community and volunteers. Toro-Linnehan says even the equipment supplied to volunteers – helmets, jackets, and first aid kit - is free. “We were looking at grants, but when we talked to the sheriff’s department, they said we don’t need anything – they have everything covered under an existing grant. It’s not costing us anything.”
Volunteers can continue their education beyond the 20-hour course. “If you want to specialize, you can take a separate course,” says Toro-Linnehan. “The initial course is almost like an overview.”
Residents of nine towns - Wardsboro, Dover, Newfane, Wilmington, Searsburg, Marlboro, Whitingham, Halifax, and Readsboro – are encouraged to attend the training. Toro-Linnehan says it’s important to have teams in every community in case they get cut off from the rest of the valley towns.
So far, more than 90 people have indicated interest in the CERT course. “Even if half show up, we’ll have a pretty good team, and nobody will ever get burned out.”
For more information contact Toro-Linnehan at (802) 368-7562.