Preparedness & Recovery

CERT Should Be Mandatory

All too often, businesses and organizations expect that first responders can get to them quickly in a major disaster.

by Larissa Paschyn / October 30, 2017

Too often, businesses and organizations rely on the hope that first responders will be able to reach them in time during a major disaster. However, the bigger the disaster, the more strain on limited resources, and the less likely the government will be able to respond. As a result, it is imperative that everyone in an organization can use their own resources and skills to take care of each other.

FEMA maintains the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program as an official emergency preparedness program. However, there is no obligation or requirement for schools and employers in high-hazard areas to implement or maintain such programs on site.

The CERT concept was originally developed following a series of earthquakes in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that left hundreds dead, injured and without emergency services. CERT volunteers are educated about disaster preparedness for the hazards that may impact their area, and CERT trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations. Local responders can rely on CERTs during disaster situations, which allows them to focus on more complex tasks.

Yet public education campaigns encouraging participation in CERTs have not been highly effective or visible. For example, in California’s Bay Area, few residents are even aware that their neighborhoods offer CERT. Combine that with the fact that numerous IT companies in the Bay Area are basically small cities, and you are looking at a recipe for disaster. With the limited man-power and resources local emergency response has, these IT villages are not likely to receive help for a long period of time. And let’s not forget the sheer density of downtown San Francisco and Oakland, where emergency response will also have a difficult time responding to all affected buildings.

Without holding schools and businesses accountable, there is a greater likelihood of loss of life when a catastrophic disaster occurs, such as tornado, flood or earthquake. In a catastrophic disaster, first responders will not be able to assist for a prolonged period of time. By requiring businesses of more than 150 persons and schools to have a work or campus-based (C-CERT) team in place, local public safety can focus on other areas [during an emergency situation]; allowing the affected school/company to be self-sufficient for a time.

In any disaster, you can find numerous accounts of neighbors and regular citizens assisting at the scene before response agencies could deploy. After the Joplin, Mo., tornado in 2011, neighbors assisted in digging others out of the rubble. During the 2016 Louisiana floods, instead of waiting for the government to come rescue them, the people of Louisiana used privately owned boats to save their neighbors. This “Cajun Navy” was responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Louisianans.

In South San Francisco, biotech companies have been ahead of the game for years, maintaining on-site search and rescue, medical, hazmat teams, and incident command teams. In the event of an earthquake, they will be able to rescue and treat their own staff before help arrives.

The fact is that our communities and our facilities are one of the most effective ways to ensure that we are prepared in the event of a future emergency response situation, and every business should be a part of that preparedness. Schools and companies need to be able to take care of their own people, and in earthquake territory, it is irresponsible not to require all corporations and educational institutions to have response programs in place.


Larissa Paschyn is the emergency manager for Amgen in South San Francisco, where she trains the emergency response teams. Previously, she was the external affairs officer for the FEMA Region 9 Incident Management Assistance Team.