Keeping the C in CERT

I’m a big fan of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). For several years I was, in addition to other duties, New York State’s CERT program coordinator. I had interactions with most CERT programs in the state, conducted many CERT train-the-trainer courses, and managed federal CERT and Citizen Corps grant programs. CERT programs, when properly organized, managed, and maintained hold incredible value to their communities.

For those not fully aware of what CERT is, it is a construct that arose from high earthquake hazard communities in California a few decades ago. It is founded on the recognition that the true first responders to a disaster are in fact community members who will tend to themselves, their families, and their neighbors. The core CERT training provides information and skills practice on team organization, first aid, light search and rescue, hazard recognition, and more. Fundamentally, CERT organizations will self-activate in the event of a sudden disaster to care for those immediately around them. CERT programs have evolved in a positive fashion through the years, spreading around the nation and the world. Ideally, they should be formed with a linkage to local emergency responders, and can be leveraged to support community preparedness and mitigation efforts as well. CERT programs are organized around the needs of their communities, with their operational protocols and training rooted in that local need. The C in CERT is for COMMUNITY.

For many years, FEMA has been developing the National Qualification System (NQS), which supports resource typing as a key component of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The primary purpose of the NQS is to establish standards for positions and functions utilized in emergency management, with the greatest benefit being the requesting, processing, deployment, and utilization of resources to disaster areas. These efforts strongly support effective resource management by providing consistent definitions of capability for various kinds and types of resources, backed up by a means for resources to track and even certify progress toward meeting those qualifications.

Yesterday, FEMA released a NIMS Alert for NQS information for several CERT positions. To be honest, this frustrates the hell out of me. CERT is a community-level resource. Not one that is intended to be deployed. Yes, FEMA has called for and deployed CERT personnel in the past, but this is not a consistent practice, has not happened often, and as far as I know was deemed a less than effective utilization. The draft position task books provided by the NQS for comment for CERT indicate roles in support of the CERTs in the jurisdictions in which they are being deployed. While some jurisdictions have prepared CERT members for roles beyond the core tasks associated with CERT, such as EOC support or field data collection, CERT is not fundamentally expected to be a long-term function in the aftermath of a disaster, so to be deploying personnel to support sustained ‘normal’ CERT operations is largely a misutilization and clearly a misunderstanding of what CERT is fundamentally about, especially when most external resources requests occur days or even weeks after a disaster.

CERT members and CERT programs are and should be focused on their own neighborhoods and communities. As individuals and as organizations they are generally not trained, equipped, or otherwise prepared to be deployable resources. They are also not being deployed to a disaster in a professional capacity, many of which have their own NQS documents. While it may sound like a great opportunity for people who want to make a difference, there are a lot of pitfalls – many of which I saw when FEMA requested CERT volunteers from around the nation to deploy for Gulf coast hurricanes about 15 years ago.

The NQS documents identify several trainings in addition to the Basic CERT course, most of which are FEMA Independent Study courses which only provide a general baseline of knowledge; and none of which specifically address issues associated with actually deploying to a disaster area. If CERT personnel wish to be deployable resources, they should do so through organizations such as the Red Cross, Team Rubicon, World Central Kitchen, or the myriad faith-based groups who are established and reputed providers of various disaster-essential services. These are entities that are also organizationally capable of managing personnel and the logistical and procedural requirements of a deployment, of which there are many. These organizations train and prepare personnel for deployments, have experienced personnel that manage and coordinate deployments, they ensure they are managed and cared for on site, they support supply chains, and are experienced in addressing liability matters.

The bottom line here is that we are expecting too much from people signed up to support a disaster response in or even near their own communities, but not to be deployed around the country. I’m sure I’ll get some responses from people espousing some specific successes in deploying CERT personnel outside their jurisdiction, of which I’m sure there are; however that is the exception and not the rule. It’s not what CERT is or ever was intended to be. I’m a big fan and supporter of CERT, and believe in the extraordinary abilities of trained, organized volunteers, but I strongly feel that CERT is not a deployable asset. Personnel who are interested in such endeavors should be steered towards organizations that have the expertise in doing so.

Your thoughts, of course, are welcome.

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

This post is part of a 10-part series on Managing an Exercise Program. In this series I provide some of my own lessons learned in the program and project management aspects of managing, designing, conducting, and evaluating Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) exercises. Your feedback is appreciated!

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 1

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 2: Develop a Preparedness Strategy

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 3: Identify Program Resources and Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 4: Conduct an Annual Training & Exercise Planning Workshop.

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 5: Securing Project Funding

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 7: Develop Exercise Documentation

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 8: Preparing Support, Personnel, & Logistical Requirements

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 9: Conducting an Exercise

Managing an Exercise Program – Part 10: Evaluation and Improvement Planning

Timothy Riecker

HSEEP Cycle

Nothing moves without funding – nothing.  Without funding, good ideas are nothing more than that – ideas.  I’ve seen many ideas and initiatives die before they even made it to the proverbial chopping block, simply because of a lack of money to support them.  This is the time of year when we see a lot of new ideas.  In public and private sectors alike, our leaders, motivated either by legislative writ or self driven compulsion, give us an annual speech to ring in the new year.  These speeches come with lofty ideas – many of which we never see get off the ground because funding is never allocated.  So where do we get money to conduct exercises?

Timothy RieckerAdmittedly, my expertise lies in government and the funds available to build and sustain emergency management programs – not so much in the private sector and not for profit areas, but I’ll give these a crack.  Public sector funds consist largely of the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP).  HSGP funds a myriad of emergency management and homeland security grants including the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG), the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), Operation Stone Garden (OPSG), and others, including Citizen Corps which is now no longer a separate grant program, but instead an optional allocation which states may choose to provide.  Generally, exercises, and the expenses associated with all steps of the exercise program and project, are allowable expenses for all these grant programs.

How do you get these funds?  Well, the bad news is that if you don’t already receive them, you probably can’t.  There are some allocations, like Citizen Corps, which may be granted to jurisdictions by the state, but with this example you need to build a local Citizen Corps program and exercise only that program with any dollars you receive.  If you do receive some of these HSGP funds, the challenge is in reallocation of dollars that are probably needed elsewhere, and budget increases are probably out of the question.  So here’s where we have to get creative.  Reach out to the folks who were involved in your TEPW – all those agencies and organizations.  Try to gain consensus on the need for an exercise (or building-block series of them).  Most or all of these agencies may have an interest if you had a successful TEPW and managed to combine some exercise initiatives.  Don’t forget your private sector partners, either – especially if they are members of your Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), as they may take special interest in preparedness.  Be sure to have a plan and make a business case.  The TEPW that you just conducted (see the previous post in this series) provides you with an excellent statement of need and a plan to address it.  You may have additional supporting documentation like after action reports, which can help add some context to your need for exercise funding.  Build a budget and know how much to ask for.  If each agency and organization can contribute a portion, that will all add up fairly quickly.  Don’t forget the possibility of sponsorships, as well.  I once managed to secure lunches to be provided for all exercise participants (about 150 of them!) in exchange for a medical supply vendor setting up in a near-venue area and giving a presentation during lunch, including the opportunity for folks to try out some of their equipment.

In the private sector, fighting for budget can be tough – especially when it’s not tied to a profit center.  My advice here (and again I have limited experience in this area, so if you have any ideas, please post them!) is, similar to the public sector, 1) make a good business case for it (i.e. improved safety, response coordination, and decreased down time all minimize the loss of revenue), 2) have a plan, and 3) if you are just starting an exercise program – start small.  Let the executives see the potential that can be gained from larger investments in your program.  Similarly, if you can partner with a local public safety exercise, be sure to invite your executives to see how it goes and be ready to explain the benefits to your company.

As for not for profits, largely it’s a combination of the public and private sector tips.  Also, consider seeking grants from foundations for the specific purpose of preparedness.  Don’t just limit yourself to local foundations, either.  Their may be companies that specialize in first responder or emergency equipment that may have a foundation.  I would guess that their foundations would have a particular interest in preparedness activities.

Overall, be sure to plan early.  Don’t expect to seek funding for an exercise that you have planned for a couple of months down the road.  It may take as long as a year to get your financial ducks in a row.

As always, if anyone has any additional thoughts or ideas, I’d love to see them!

Coming soon… Managing an Exercise Program – Part 6: Conducting Exercise Planning Conferences.  It’s more than just meetings!