By Sue Botos
After Hurricane Sandy morphed into the storm that left a trail of devastation over a wide swath of the country, a lot of folks, myself included, were shocked that something of this magnitude could touch our usually safe area. The volunteers of CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) put in hundreds of hours watching downed wires, staffing shelters and otherwise assisting first responders. I decided to see what it takes to become part of CERT.
Westshore CERT coordinator Tricia Granfors told the group of about 20 trainees assembled in a meeting room at St. John Medical Center that the topics on this first day of the new session would go “from zero to sixty” – and she wasn’t kidding. For, as we soon discovered, when it comes to preparing for and assisting during disasters, you do have to hit the ground running.
According to the training manual, CERT was developed and first implemented by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985. Recognizing that citizens would most likely be on their own during the early stages of a catastrophe, they formulated a program that taught basic survival and rescue skills that would improve their ability to weather the disaster and to safely help others until first responders could arrive.
I sort of wondered what I was getting into; after all, this was some pretty heavy stuff. But Granfors and the day’s speakers – Tim Brown, of the Energizer Co., who talked about disaster preparedness, and Lakewood fire captain and explosives expert Gordie Polando, who covered the topic of terrorism – presented their subjects in a no-nonsense, yet engaging manner.
“We’re going to look for the lighter side. The idea of preparedness is not scary and not to be worried (about),” Granfors stated, adding that “a sense of humor is encouraged.”
During his presentation, Brown outlined the types of disasters that can occur, including natural, technological and intentional. It seemed that a natural disaster was the catalyst for many of the group members to take CERT training. A little less than half were from Bay Village, which felt the brunt of the October storm. “We weren’t prepared and we suffered,” commented one woman.
Brown covered topics like community alerts, warnings, and plans and proactive actions, as well as developing household plans and drills and assembling disaster supply kits. “You always need to be aware of your surroundings and know where the emergency exits are,” Brown said, adding that he once called the fire marshal to a building supplies store that kept its fire doors locked to discourage shoplifters. “I’m that guy,” he said.
To demonstrate the skills and abilities used as CERT members, we were divided into groups of five to design and construct a five-foot-tall tower out of available materials, in this case construction paper, cardboard and tape. The idea was, as in a real disaster, to quickly assess everyone’s skills (in my case it was grabbing the best supplies) and put a plan into action. Happily, our tower survived, with just a bit of persuasion to stay upright.
The theme of securing yourself and your own family before assisting others during a disaster was reinforced by Granfors’ introduction of Polando. “In case of fire, evacuate before tweeting about it,” she said, adding that often it’s our cultural attitude that can get us into trouble.
“We have a different thought process,” she said, adding that in many countries, an unattended package would most likely be reported and the building it was found in evacuated. “In this country we would put it on YouTube.”
We became rather quiet as Polando, a 32-year veteran firefighter and explosives authority, gave his presentation. “We were cleaning up anthrax before it was cool,” he told us. It was pretty scary as he described the everyday places, such as beauty salons, drugstores and even air bags, where the makings for explosives could be found. Also, Polando did not recommend using the Internet to find bomb-building instructions.
“The only recipes you should use from the Internet are from Guy Fieri,” he said, emphasizing his point with a video called “The Poor Man’s James Bond,” which featured a guy with missing fingers making homemade bombs.
It was even scarier when Polando proposed a scenario involving a nonlethal form of anthrax, commonly found in soil, placed in a backpack in downtown Cleveland. “It’s easy to start a panic,” he stated, adding that something like that could cripple a city’s economy indefinitely.
Polando described five categories of possible terrorist weapons: chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives, forming the acronym CBRNE. He said that most of these attacks can be survivable. “If you take your clothes off, 85 percent of the problem is solved,” he stated, referring to contamination incidents. (Note to self: Don’t volunteer to participate in the decontamination drill.)
The bottom line, according to Polando: “Don’t become a casualty yourself.”
Next: Disaster psychology and search and rescue