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®