Monterey is one of the most beautiful coastal cities in California. Originally the state capital, the city’s diverse topography also makes it vulnerable to a wide variety of natural disasters.
Responding to growing citizen demand to provide disaster response training, the Monterey Fire Department brought the San Francisco Fire Department’s highly successful Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) program to the city in 1994. The first class of NERT trainees completed the course in February 1995. These enthusiastic graduates spread the word, and requests for additional classes quickly poured in from both citizens and businesses.
As the program grew, Monterey public safety officials recognized the importance of reliable communications in their mission of “doing the most good for the most people.”
“The question with most community response team programs is how they are going to communicate,” said retired California Highway Patrol Officer Tim McFaddan. “You need to be self-sufficient if you are going to deliver in a crisis.”
In response, Monterey NERT took a bold step and obtained three FCC-licensed frequencies dedicated to the team. Not long after, the FCC mandated all commercial and public safety license holders to narrowband their licensed channels. While the FCC program was designed to promote more efficient use of the VHF and UHF land mobile bands, the downside was that it placed an enormous financial burden on local municipalities across the country. As a result, many municipalities gave up their radio programs and chose to use cellphones for their disaster response programs instead.
Monterey took a different approach. “We looked at hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; both areas lost cellphones and Internet for up to a month,” McFaddan said. “We knew if we wanted to do the most good for the most people, then we needed to have something more reliable than cellphones.”
Today, the original NERT program is known as the Monterey Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
Because Monterey has such a varied geographic location, CERT volunteers must complete a thorough, nationwide training program, which covers a wide range of material, from traffic control to light search and rescue. Using the training learned in the classroom and during exercises, CERT members can assist others in their neighborhood or workplace following an event when professional responders aren’t immediately available to help. Volunteers also receive triage training and practice taking patients to the hospital via different back roads in an effort to aid as many victims as possible in a safe, timely manner. The training prepares the volunteers for possible emergencies that might last anywhere from a few hours to as long as seven days.
Monterey CERT is organized into nine zones or team areas throughout the community. Each zone has an assigned captain and team members from the surrounding neighborhoods. A rugged, all-weather Conex storage container is anchored to a foundation in the ground in each zone. The containers hold a set of supplies including first-aid kits, hand tools, pry bars, fire extinguishers, body bags, tarps, generators, stretcher boards, ropes, yellow isolation tape, water, portable sanitary facilities and a host of other equipment.
Each storage container also contains Monterey CERT’s communication tools: Powerwerx radios, hiking antennas and Pryme’s heavy-duty speaker microphones. The radios utilize the three licensed FCC frequencies, which allow CERT leaders to deploy their 308 volunteers at any given moment under challenging conditions.
“Radios were previously stored at the team captains’ houses,” McFaddan said. “But we realized putting all our resources in one place is just the beginning of a failure. So we decided to evenly distribute our supplies throughout the city’s neighborhoods in an effort to make them easily accessible and readily available to all CERT members.”
The Monterey CERT communications system is based on a “simplex” ICS structure where radios transmit simply from radio to radio. There are no repeaters or dependent infrastructure susceptible to catastrophic failure. The Powerwerx WXRSM speaker microphones, custom built by Pryme, are water and impact resistant, which provide volunteers with a reliable product in emergencies and training.
“One of the issues with volunteer organizations is finding reliable equipment at an efficient cost,” McFaddan said. Recently the city’s CERT was awarded a grant allowing it to add a solar panel recharging system to every neighborhood container. The 12-volt battery recharging systems are designed to maintain the handheld radios and other low power resources like interior lighting, and will continue to function during a long-term citywide power failure.
Under the city’s disaster plan, one critical role for Monterey CERT members is to make initial damage assessment reports immediately following an emergency.
“These reports are made directly from the CERT zones to the city emergency operations center,” said Demetrius A. Kastros, a retired member of the California Fire Service and the lead instructor of Monterey CERT. “Since CERT teams live in the neighborhoods, we are ideally suited to this reporting role.”
In addition to allowing for storage and recharging of the radios, the storage containers also serve as the neighborhood staging area for team members during an emergency. Neighborhood captains are responsible for communications with their local team members. Individual team members communicate with their captain at the designated container, and the captain communicates with the EOC CERT member, reducing radio calls only to essential emergency traffic.
But the radio system allows for more than damage assessment reports, Kastros said. “It enables the EOC to remain in direct contact with the various neighborhoods across town, getting constant updates on conditions,” he said. “The radios also allow efficient tracking of CERT members operating in an area, and they enable teams in the field to instantly request professional assistance, such as from the local fire department, for a situation beyond the role of the CERT.”
Monterey also uses a commercially available service that allows hundreds of personnel to be contacted at the same time. E-Sponder is an Internet-based system that allows anyone with access codes to send a message from an Internet-capable computer. “The sender accesses the service, types a message on the screen similar to an email, and then sends that message to a predesignated group stored in the system,” Kastros said.
The typed message is instantly voice digitized and received by the designated person in the form of a recorded voice message. The messages can be sent to land lines or cellphones, and the recipients simultaneously receive the same message in text and email format.
The system allows for storing of multiple sub-groups such as EOC personnel, fire department representatives and CERT members. The sender can transmit an all-call message or select one or more sub-groups for notification.
Monterey CERT members were activated during the March 2011 tsunami alert following the Japan earthquake. In this instance, after activating the EOC, city officials decided it would be prudent to post personnel in safe areas to warn citizens to remain clear of the beaches.
Today, the Monterey CERT is touted as one the best in the nation, which has led to many other cities replicating its program. Still, Monterey CERT continues to look for ways to improve the system. A monthly “On the Air” radio network started in February allows CERT members to practice their radio skills in a live situation, permitting them to hone their skills, gain confidence and test the operation and function of the radio equipment. Fifty-seven CERT members took part in the training in just the first three months it was available.
With fire contracts including the cities of Pacific Grove and Carmel, Monterey CERT has also recently begun working on a more regional level.
“Mother Nature and man-made disasters do not recognize political boundaries,” McFaddan said. “We are testing our operational radio abilities regionally to advise and guide our neighbors in communicating as a single team.