Choosing CERT

In 1985, the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) developed and implemented the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) concept for the purpose of training citizens and private and government employees to meet immediate needs in the event of a major disaster. Since then, the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) and the National Fire Academy adopted and expanded the CERT materials, believing them applicable to all hazards. And, since the training was made available nationally by FEMA in 1993, communities in 28 states and Puerto Rico have conducted CERT training.

Which is all well and good for those communities, but what about college and university campuses, which are small cities unto themselves and are extremely varied (residential, commuter, technical, Ivy League, university systems, HBCUs, Hispanic-serving, urban, rural), including different hazards (earthquakes, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes) in different climates? Well, in 2006, Michigan State University (MSU) in Lansing received a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and was charged with developing a train-the-trainer program for all types of colleges and universities.

Bringing CERT to Campus
“The mission was to take the standard CERT curriculum and concept and train people in how to train people to implement it in their unique campus communities,” says Phillip Schertzing, Ph.D., an MSU academic specialist and former director of the National Campus CERT Train the Trainer Program. “At the time, train-the-trainer standards were up to each state. This was a targeted application of the standard CERT program.”

During the program’s four years, Schertzing spread the 20-hour core training (plus four-hour campus-specific training) geographically around the country and could accommodate class sizes of 50. “We might have 12 to 20 different schools represented in each class from a specific region,” he notes. “We trained more than 1,000 people in 28 classes across the country.”

Of course, it only makes sense that the campus that designed the train-the-trainer program has a C-CERT program. “We talked about it since post-9/11,” says Inspector Penny Fischer, Homeland Security and Planning Division Commander with the MSU Police Department. “We first started training in 2006. Shortly after, Phil began creating the campus paradigm, and we helped write some of his supporting documents.”

Today, CERT’s basic training program covers eight elements: disaster preparedness, fire safety, disaster medical operations (two parts), light search and rescue operations, CERT organization, disaster psychology, and terrorism and CERT. In addition there are 13 hazard annexes that can be completed based on your individual needs: earthquakes, fires and wildfires, floods, excessive heat, hurricanes and coastal storms, landslides and mudflows, severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes, winter storms, nuclear power plant emergencies, and pandemic influenza.

“We focus on the preparedness element,” says Fischer. “We feel that having a prepared community as a whole is a bigger asset than having volunteers at the scene. Also, we use the annexes to add in value based on our needs. For instance, it isn’t necessary for us to cover hurricanes, but it’s definitely necessary to discuss tornadoes.”

Fischer notes that the value of C-CERT to MSU is that any community has only so many response assets, even when it looks beyond its borders for assistance. “We’re a community within a community,” she observes. “When we look to our own community that understands our values, it understands what we need to focus on.”

Including Students in Training
To that end, MSU allows students to participate in C-CERT training, which not all campuses do. “We conduct ongoing, refresher training in fall and spring to include the student population,” says Fischer, “and what we do depends on the need and numbers. Every other year we participate in training organized by other jurisdictions, such as the City of Lansing, City of East Lansing, Ingham County, and Delta Township.”

Administrators at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) participated in MSU’s train the trainer program in April 2008 and launched their C-CERT program in February 2010. One difference between MSU’s and UCO’s programs is student involvement. “At this point, we have decided to not include students in the program,” says Norman D. Nieves, MS, OCEM, UCO’s emergency management coordinator for Safety and Transportation Services, “because they turn over every four years. But we’re considering it.”

Another difference between the two programs is that, where MSU focuses on preparedness, UCO focuses on response. “We tell our volunteers that we may be the first responders before the first responders — meaning fire department, medical services, police department — arrive,” says Nieves. “It’s also incident-based decision making — what do we need from our volunteers based on the situation? That’s the organization portion of the training, and we understand that our volunteers are our eyes and ears while we set up the crisis management team.”

The Value of Volunteers

Nieves notes that C-CERT’s value to the University is providing a pool of volunteers that they otherwise would not have. “Any resources I would need in an emergency would probably be taken up by the city’s needs,” he observes. “We’re a city within a city, and CERT gives me a pool of people who know my language, what I need, and how to help.

“Since CERT,” Nieves continues, “I am more confident that we are able to handle an incident, at least initially, on our own because we have a pool of trained personnel who understand that four phases of emergency management: response, recovery, mitigation, and preparedness.”

Since MSU’s grant, FEMA now has a national standard train-the-trainer curriculum and a separate CERT basic training course, both of which are for any organization or community. “At the same time, they’re currently in the process of developing a new campus annex,” says Schertzing. “If you want to be a trainer, you would take the basic program, then the train-the-trainer program, and then the new three-hour module specific to campuses.”

In the meantime, if you are considering a CERT program on your campus and want to learn more, visit www.citizencorps.gov/cert. “Do your homework and make sure it will work on your campus,” advises Nieves. “If it’s a good fit and you have the opportunity to set it up, do it, as it is a great program.” 

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