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Are You Getting the Most Value Out of Your CERT Program?

Predisaster community organizing can pay big dividends if integrated with emergency management systems.

by Lucien G. Canton / April 10, 2015

One of the persistent disaster myths is that people wait to be taken care of by the government. However, both research and experience show that people are proactive in times of disaster, reaching out to neighbors and even total strangers to offer help. This concept of people helping people forms the core of the Community Emergency Response Team program that was elevated to a national initiative following Sept. 11. However, are we doing enough to integrate the potential utility of these programs into disaster response operations?

This is the question asked by researchers Dr. Jessica Jensen and John Carr in a recent article in the Journal of Emergency Management, Predisaster Integration of Community Emergency Response Teams. In a study of CERT coordinators in FEMA Region VII (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska), Jensen and Carr looked at the level of integration of CERTs with the local emergency management systems. They found that the level of integration (defined as recognition of the CERT as part of the formal local emergency management system) fell roughly into three categories:

  1. Least Integrated — About 25 percent of the respondents were focused primarily on maximizing the training available to citizens but did little else to provide additional training or inclusion in activities such as exercises. There were no team organizations and CERT-trained people are viewed as individuals.
  2. Somewhat Integrated — Accounting for about 50 percent of the respondents, these CERTs have a level of team organization (e.g., standard operating procedures, membership requirements) and participate in emergency management exercises. CERTs are identified in the jurisdictional emergency operations plan with specified roles.
  3. Highly Integrated — These CERTs have a specialized role documented in the emergency operations plan, are regularly involved in jurisdictional exercises, and train routinely with other agencies in the system. In essence, they are considered first responders by the jurisdiction. Only about 14 percent of the studied CERTs fell into this category.

There was also a small number of teams studied that received CERT training and then were passed on for integration into other organizations (e.g., Civil Air Patrol or the American Red Cross).

As Jensen and Carr note, the study is not intended to be generalizable to the full CERT population. However, it does provide an interesting approach to determining how well your jurisdiction is integrating CERT into emergency response. The advent of social media means that local groups now have a mechanism for organizing themselves without the involvement of government, as was demonstrated very clearly in Hurricane Sandy. CERT offers the ability to organize communities before disaster strikes. However, failing to integrate CERTS into our emergency plans negates that benefit and may leave us struggling to catch up with the public response to a disaster.

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