When disaster strikes on or near a college campus, local first responders don’t always have the staff or resources to help immediately — especially when the campus is as big as a small city.
That’s why thousands of students, faculty and staff on campuses nationwide are being certified to help.
Campus Community Emergency Response Teams (C-CERT) are modeled after the national Community Emergency Response Team program, which educates civilians about disaster preparedness and trains them in basic disaster response skills like fire safety, search and rescue, team organization and basic medical operations.
Managed by FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division, the C-CERT program is part of FEMA’s larger whole community approach to preparedness that preaches that the country isn’t completely resilient unless each community member is engaged and educated about what to do in a disaster situation.
College campuses, just like any communities, are at risk from natural disasters to school shootings. And sometimes the size of the campus can be overwhelming for first responders who are responsible for the city’s response.
“Having a C-CERT team … local public safety can focus on other areas [during an emergency situation]; the campus can be self-sufficient for a time,” said Philip Schertzing, C-CERT project manager at Michigan State University (MSU) and director of the school’s Global Community Security Institute.
FEMA is conducting research on exactly how many college programs exist, and it’s estimated that more than 500 campuses run CERT programs. Teen CERT, which trains high school students for emergency situations, is also on the rise.
With real-life emergency preparedness experience on their campuses, the hope is that these individuals will use their training and education long after they’ve graduated.
Tornadoes are the No. 1 threat in Lee County, Ala., the home of Auburn University (AU).
“If we had a large incident near or on campus, first responders would be overwhelmed quickly,” said Chance Corbett, associate director of emergency management for AU’s Department of Public Safety and Security.
In the event of a disaster, C-CERT members put on their helmets, vests and other equipment and are able to evacuate people from the building, manage traffic and spread information among the crowd. If there’s a shooting or serious injury, the team can set public boundaries, keeping people away from the scene and also informed about the situation until first responders arrive.
“They’re seen as some kind of authority figure,” Corbett said.
The goal is to have a CERT in each building on campus, so if disaster strikes, those members are educated about every fire extinguisher, exit and assembly point, and they also have a good idea of everyone who works in the building, Corbett said.
The Auburn C-CERT is made up of 250 faculty and staff volunteers — no students — and works closely with Lee County Emergency Management, which runs an extensive CERT program.
The fire department helps run the campus trainings, which include a two-day, 16-hour course with hands-on exercises like search and rescue and first aid training. Team members also participate in refresher courses and periodic meetings to keep their skills — and interest — updated.
The county-campus relationship benefits both Lee County residents and AU’s population. If a CERT employee lives within the county and completes the AU training course, he or she can take a short orientation course through the county and can be a member of both teams. This gives the person the authority, and two sets of emergency supplies, to help both on campus and off.
“They can help in their homes or in their neighborhoods,” Corbett said. And there’s a better chance they’ll stay active when they graduate.
“The training goes with them,” he said. “It’s not likely they will forget it when they leave the campus.”
Thorough training is required before volunteers can call themselves C-CERT members.
FEMA released an annex to the CERT Basic Training Instructor Guide, designed to help certified CERT instructors teach the course on a college campus. The annex lists tips and aspects to consider before starting a team.
For example, what’s the campus policy on liability, funding and forming relationships with local first responders? It also covers how to conduct training, reviewing topics like disaster psychology and preparedness; terrorism and light search and rescue operations; information on planning and marketing a college team; and resources to learn more about campus programs.
The training program started in 2007 at MSU’s School of Criminal Justice when the DHS awarded the school a two-year grant to develop a standard program dubbed Train the Trainer to certify instructors and give them the tools to bring back to their own members.
The three-day program involves lectures, small group discussions, demonstrations, practice and “teach-back” sessions. If the program is offered for class credit, it can be stretched over the entire semester.
Taking from MSU’s experience, FEMA created an official Train-the-Trainer course outline and an official annex to the basic CERT training guide.
The guide allows flexibility for schools to add training requirements or make adjustments as needed — a key factor in making this program successful.
“Every state has different hazards, and institutions have different policies and views on liability,” said Schertzing, who helped launch the Train-the-Trainer program at MSU. Some college campuses have restrictions that prohibit the fire suppression or disaster simulation parts of the CERT basic training from being done on campus.
Other institutions are reluctant to let C-CERT members assist off campus, while some have formed strong partnerships with local police and fire departments.
The University of Miami’s CANES Emergency Response team is one of the few teams nationwide that is composed solely of students, including an entirely undergraduate executive board.
The team holds two trainings per year, one at the start of each semester. They last three days — usually over a weekend — and always involve at least one practice drill, said Stephanie Smart, a UM senior and CANES team president.
The UM program began in 2005 after uprooted trees and downed power lines from Hurricane Katrina left students locked in their dorms, helpless and awaiting rescue. Students wanted the opportunity to be more proactive.
The team has since grown to 30 to 50 general members. Smart and members of the executive board recently traveled to three colleges in Florida and helped students and faculty start their own programs.
“In each one of them, we took a difference stance,” she said. “We had a different plan depending on what they needed.”
Programs mainly need funds to pay for training instructors and equipment like helmets, vests and small first aid kits.
But as C-CERT programs continue to grow, government funding isn’t keeping up. “Institutions are finding other innovative ways to fund it,” Schertzing said. For example, grants from foundations, corporate sponsors or donations from the alumni association.
AU uses free services from local first responders, who help with trainings — a benefit of building a strong relationship with police and fire departments off campus. It also helps the Auburn first responders get to know the C-CERT members, which often leads to faster communication and interaction in emergency situations.
The program was originally funded by a grant from the Alabama Legislature. Leftover funds are still covering much of the costs.
UM’s team gets about $10,000 a year to keep up the program, which is mainly funded by the campus’s William R. Butler Center for Service and Leadership. Funds also come from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, a national foundation, and UM itself.
FEMA suggests first asking the institution if it would be willing to fund the program.
Some campuses even have college insurance and state laws that cover CERT member training and emergency response activities in terms of liability, immunity or workers’ compensation.
Every campus has its own interpretation of liability and risk management, Scherzting said. Good Samaritan laws differ by state. “It’s very important that the institution considers that upfront in making those decisions in who to recruit and if they will let them go off campus — all those issues,” he said.
Another challenge is keeping members engaged. Volunteers are enthusiastic to get involved, but keeping members involved, especially during quiet times on campus, and recruiting new members after students graduate or faculty leaves, can be challenging. UM holds outreach events like student barbecues and makes an effort to get out into the community, assisting where they can.
Miami-Dade County, Fla., has its own CERT, but in recent years, the CANES team has been more focused on campus activities, Smart said. However, the county is looking into joining forces, doing drills and opening up the campus program to their own CERTs.
“If we have the ability to teach a group of students, who will know how to wrap someone and treat wounds properly, it creates a waterfall effect across campus,” Smart said. “More people are prepared and have the knowledge to help.”