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Journey through CERT: Week 1

Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/ Town Crier
Photo Ellie Van Houtte/ Town CrierCommunity Emergency Response Team participants in Los Altos Hills train to become disaster-service workers who assist others in their neighborhoods in the aftermath of a catastrophe.


Over the next six weeks, Town Crier staff writer and photographer Ellie Van Houtte will chronicle her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training. Her experience during week one follows.


As someone who’s lived in California for just one year, I’ve never experienced the tremors of an earthquake – or the wrath of any major catastrophe.

With three active faults near where I now live and work, I recently wondered whether I’m prepared to handle the minutes, days and weeks following a disaster. I’m afraid I’m not.

When I began reporting last fall on Los Altos Hills’ efforts to prepare residents for disaster response, I watched in awe as a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) executed a complex simulated post-disaster drill at Foothill College like musicians in a symphony. The simulation involved setting up ARK – an incident command center for the Los Altos Hills CERT team – where a few people orchestrated a platoon of trained volunteers via a series of exercises that funneled information from the town’s 56 neighborhood zones.

The exercise was a wake-up call for me. The danger of an earthquake, wildfire or major storm in the area is real, and I needed to be prepared for it.

When Mike Sanders, the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s emergency services coordinator, suggested that I enroll in Los Altos Hills’ sixth annual CERT class, I didn’t hesitate.

The 18-hour training, which began April 9, is scheduled four Tuesday nights and one Saturday.

When my 21 classmates and I arrived at Los Altos Hills Town Hall for the first session, several trained CERT members welcomed us with a receiving line

Minutes later, we had collected town maps and a 300-page field operating guide, posed for headshots and raised our right hands to become volunteer disaster-service workers. According to Sanders, that oath is important and ensures that any CERT member injured while engaging in official disaster service would be eligible for workers’ compensation.

But any misperceptions that CERT designation gives someone a “go anywhere” or “get-out-of-jail-free card” were quickly dispelled.

“Only do what you’re trained to do,” Sanders said. “Just because you’re a CERT member doesn’t mean you can do everything a firefighter can.”

What is CERT?

Those running the session explained what CERT is – and does.

Although emergency responders and other medical personnel are best equipped to handle challenging situations, they might not be able to reach those in need immediately after a catastrophe strikes. That’s where California’s 150,000 CERT members come in.

CERT members are seen as the eyes and ears on the ground. They play a critical role in securing vital resources and services in the wake of a disaster.

“Your job is to collect as much data as possible, as quickly and accurately as possible,” Sanders said.

After collecting neighborhood data, members forward it to the ARK, the CERT command center. The information travels up the chain of communications – from Los Altos Hills’ Emergency Operation Center to County Emergency Services, the Coastal Region Emergency Operations Center and as far as the California Emergency Management Agency, which operates 24/7.

‘We’re all in it together’

People taking this year’s CERT training are doing so for myriad reasons – some want to know their neighbors better, while others remember the aftermath of 9/11. Two teachers from St. Nicholas Catholic School said they enrolled to make their campus safer, and staff from Daughters of Charity want to be prepared if an earthquake strikes.

At the conclusion of the first class, I began to better understand the value of CERT. It’s more than the backpack of supplies and manuals I clasped in my arms as I left – it’s the opportunity to connect with people who live in the community where I work. I might someday be a lifeline for these people or they for me, in unforeseen circumstances.

CERT supervisor Richard Green summarized it best: “A disaster is something beyond normal … beyond your capacity. … We’re all in it together.”

To read Van Houtte’s Week 2 entry on CERT’s simulated triage exercises and disaster medical operations, click here.

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