Ready for any trouble

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 30, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

More than two dozen residents are giving up their time to train on how they can help their communities survive a disaster.

Earlier this month, Suffolk became the second city in Hampton Roads to offer Community Emergency Response Team training (CERT). Sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the free eight-session course teaches volunteers how to respond to emergencies, particularly during natural and manmade disasters.

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The program ends Feb. 8 with a simulated disaster exercise. Classes cover an array of topics including emergency fire suppression, disaster preparedness, disaster medical operations, light search and rescue, disaster psychology/team organization, and for the first time, bioterrorism.

Surprisingly, the program has attracted more than double the typical number of students that usually enroll in the citizens’ police or fire academies, said Capt. Jim Judkins, the city’s Emergency Management coordinator.

Twenty-nine people are taking the current CERT class and 18 of 25 seats in a second class starting April 1 have already been spoken for.

&uot;I was crossing my fingers and hoping to get 15 in the first class,&uot; said Judkins. &uot;This is by far the most popular class we have ever offered.’

Similar classes nationwide are experiencing the same popularity, probably riding the wave of patriotism sweeping the country since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and probable war with Iraq, he said.

Although CERT has been around since the 1980s, Florida and California – known for hurricanes and earthquakes respectively – were the main states that used CERT teams.

The 9-11 attacks, along with President George W. Bush and Gov. Mark Warner’s promotion of volunteerism, have prompted more Virginia localities to make the training available.

&uot;Those are certainly among the reasons we’re having such a good turnout,&uot; Judkins said. &uot;I think people are feeling a bit helpless with all that’s going on in the world today.

&uot;People are saying they just want to do something to help their communities and their families.&uot;

CERT volunteers are trained to help professional emergency workers, he said. Eventually, he hopes to see CERT teams that could be activated in every neighborhood.

CERT teams would be called upon to respond to any disaster, such as hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, or even terrorist attacks, when professional public safety workers are delayed.

&uot;CERT volunteers will be trained to be self-activated to make it to the scene immediately,&uot; Judkins said. For example, CERT grads may put on small fires, go door-to-door to make sure residents are safe, gather information for career emergency workers, and the like.

CERT teams would have been an invaluable resource during the September 1999 flooding that followed Hurricane Floyd, wiping out downtown Franklin and parts of Suffolk and Southampton and Isle of Wight counties, he said. In addition to destroying homes, floodwaters wiped out the entire communications system.

On completion of the training, CERT graduates will be equipped with hardhats, vests, gloves and goggles – all of which are being donated by the local business community, Judkins said.

Two CERT class members say the desire to be equipped to help their neighborhoods in the event of a disaster prompted them to register for the course. But both agree that the 9-11 tragedies were the catalyst that drew so many people in for the class.

&uot;I think people recognized the need to do something because of the 9-11 attacks,&uot; said Donna Perry, a veteran of both the citizens’ police and fire academies. &uot;I hope it’s making people realize the sacrifices these guys make every day.

&uot;I think it’s important that people are grouped together and seem so excited about it,&uot; Perry continued. &uot;Hopefully, if we ever face a natural disaster or act of terrorism, we will be educated and know what to do and how to respond as a team.&uot;

Jimmie Goodman, a retired shipyard worker from the Holland area, saw the class as a way of getting more involved in the community.

The need for CERT training hit home after a family member lost their Gates Road home in Hurricane Floyd.

With his home being seven miles from the nearest fire station and 25 miles from the downtown Suffolk Police Department, Goodman believes the time he spends in CERT is a good investment.

&uot;I’ve seen the damage and dangers of a natural disaster firsthand,&uot; Goodman said. &uot;Disasters can happen close to home. The more I learn in classes like this, the more I will know how to protect my family and others in the neighborhood.&uot;

Although the CERT training is free, state emergency management officials estimate the class costs them approximately $100 per student. The fire department and Suffolk Health Department are absorbing any costs into their operating budgets.

Judkins said the department would continue with one class per quarter as long as the public has sufficient interests.

Even if people choose not to serve on a CERT team, they will still benefit from the class, he said.

&uot;This is information that they can take back and use in their homes,&uot; Judkins said. &uot;It’s just things that are good to know.&uot;