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In Case of Emergency ... Community Emergency Response Team Members Lend a Helping Hand in Willmar, Minn.

CERT was first formed following a major earthquake in Mexico in the late 1980s, when regular, untrained community members worked to save hundreds of victims before first responders could get to the scene.

(TNS) — When an emergency hits a town, whether a natural disaster or a major accident such as a chemical spill, first responders can sometimes become overwhelmed and need assistance themselves. That is when a Community Emergency Response Team can come in handy, to lend a hand to local fire, police and others.

This fall the Willmar, Minn., Police Department will be training its first Community Emergency Response Team, often referred to as CERT, with the long-term goal to train as many people as they can to help when needed.

"You can take care of yourself, your family and neighbors. Then you can respond and help out emergency responders," Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt said.

For many years Willmar had People on Watch, a neighborhood watch-style group. After years of declining membership, the Police Department closed the group down and started looking for another way to get the community involved.

"Transition POW into something that could be multi-generational, something good for the community," Felt said.

CERT was first formed following a major earthquake in Mexico in the late 1980s, when regular, untrained community members worked to save hundreds of victims before first responders could get to the scene. The problem was those rescuers were untrained and things started to go wrong.

"They ended up being victims themselves," Felt said.

The CERT training provides community members the tools to not only help others but also help themselves, which can be a big help when first responders are answering multiple calls.

"The biggest thing is the community education," Police Capt. Mike Anderson said.

Early this year, Felt, Anderson and several others from the Police Department traveled to Maryland to attend the national CERT training. Begun by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1993, CERT has since been taken over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and introduced nationwide.

"CERT is in all 50 states and beyond," Felt said.

At the federal training, Felt and his team learned how to train additional trainers, along with the first steps in building a Community Emergency Response Team in the Willmar area.

"It was a good building block for the program," Felt said.

The first training for the Willmar Area CERT will begin Sept. 4. The first students will be learning about disaster preparedness, fire safety, disaster medical operations, light search and rescue operations, disaster psychology and terrorism. Each class will last about 2½ hours, and the course will end with a disaster simulation, allowing the students a chance to use what they have learned.

"You learn basic response to major incidents," Anderson said. "You learn very useful skills. The stuff they teach is good stuff."

The first class of students are past members of People on Watch and part of the emergency amauter radio club, who already have some emergency preparedness training. They will give feedback and help the Willmar Police Department to tweak the program for the Willmar area.

"The first class is a trial run," Felt said.

In 2019, the course will be held twice a year and will be open to most people in the Willmar area. The only qualifications are to be at least 18 years old, have no felony convictions and be of good moral character.

"We are opening it up to the Willmar area. If you can make it to the training, there is a place for you in CERT," Felt said.

The Police Department is looking for people of all backgrounds, cultures and physical capabilities. Even if you can't do a lot of heavy lifting, you will be welcome.

"There is a place for people on CERT," Anderson said. "Our population is diverse here."

He said he hoped that members of the Somali and Latino communities would be interested.

Following the nine-week training course, Felt is planning on holding one or two additional trainings a year, to teach the team something new or brush up on old skills.

"Our goal is to make it fun, a good learning experience," Felt said. "They will put out a fire with a fire extinguisher. It is a good chance to do some hands-on stuff."

In addition to sharing vital information to the community on how to react during an emergency situation, Felt sees the formation of a Community Emergency Response Team as a way to bring the area together in an effort to help one another.

"My goal is relationship building in the community," Felt said. "We want to help build community pride; get to know your neighbor."


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