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After 10 years, volunteer revives citizen emergency response team

Posted: January 21, 2014 - 1:01am
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Community Emergency Response Team members in Juneau chat after the group's first meeting of the year.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Community Emergency Response Team members in Juneau chat after the group's first meeting of the year.

Jeremy Johnson knows what it feels like to have the world around him come collapsing down.

When he was in high school, a tornado touched down near his house in Indiana, destroyed his home and sent his life into a tailspin.

“We were basically horrified and shuffled into our neighbor’s house,” Johnson said. “The neighbors were sound of mind and took care of my mom who was hysterical, and my sister and I who were just wet and confused.”

But in the tornado’s aftermath, his neighborhood came together, cleaned up the wreckage and took care of one another. Johnson remembers his classmates brought him boxes full of necessities, such as toothpaste and clothing.

“It was touching,” he said, remembering it was a moment that brought him to tears.

That formative experience is one of the reasons Johnson does whatever he can to pay it forward, and in this case, is helping revive a community emergency response team in Juneau. The group, called CERT for short, trains “average people” to respond to emergencies so they are able to help themselves and their neighbors should disaster strike.

“I couldn’t be that military guy, but I could do this,” he said Monday during an interview. “So for me, it really is exactly about giving back to the community.”

Now a 34-year-old computer programmer for the state of Alaska living in Juneau, Johnson volunteered back in September 2011 to be the leader of CERT. The organization was initially formed in Juneau in 2002 and was active through 2003, but it fell to the wayside as the lead organizer moved out of town and the person who was slated to fill his shoes did not have the time to take it over.

“It just went away,” said Michelle Brown, the city’s emergency programs grant coordinator who is also a trained CERT member. “And then at the (Emergency Preparedness Expo in 2011), Jeremy said ‘I just graduated from the University of Alaska and was in the CERT program there and am knowledgeable about it. Why don’t we have one in Juneau?’ And that’s how we filled that void.”

With Johnson at the group’s helm, CERT has provided training to about 40 people in Juneau in the past two years on a variety of subjects related to emergencies and disasters. Such topics include emergency preparedness, fire suppression, First Aid and triage, disaster psychology and search and rescue. The biannual course is led by Juneau resident Mike Lopez, a U.S. Navy veteran who served 21 years in the military as a law enforcement specialist. Four courses have been held so far.

The idea behind CERT is that, should first responders be delayed or unable to assist due to the size or scope of a disaster, citizens should be trained to do what they can to survive, and to help others. The concept originated out of California in 1985 after a nearby earthquake shook Mexico City and killed at least 10,000 people. An earthquake two years later in Whittier Narrows in Los Angeles County further emphasized the need to train civilians. The Los Angeles Fire Department developed and implemented the first CERT program, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency seized onto the idea at the federal level and made it nationwide in 1993. Since then, communities in 28 states have conducted CERT training, according to FEMA’s website.

Although CERT is tailored for the average person, CERT in Juneau has attracted many people whose professions are already aimed at helping people. Of the 12 people who attended the group’s meeting at the fire department’s training center last week, many were either in the medical field, military veterans or retired firefighters. As one CERT member, Scott Novak, put it, they’re the people who are going to “go out and help anyway.”

“But we’re going to give them training so they know how to be safe and work smart,” said Novak, who himself is a retired Capital City Fire and Rescue volunteer firefighter.

For Griff Griffith, a 41-year-old disabled veteran who was an infantry medic in the Army, joining CERT naturally appealed to him.

“This is what I did in the military,” he said. “I’ll be doing the medical and treatment.”

Likewise, Coast Guard veteran Allison Natcher used to be do contingency planning, or emergency planning, when she was in the service. She responded to multiple emergencies in her former job, including to the Gulf of Mexico for the BP oil spill and Crescent City, Calif., for the Japanese tsunami.

“I want to be able to utilize my skills and help the community,” Natcher said.

CERT members are quick to emphasize that they are not first responders — they do not go into the burning building or put their own lives at risk. Novak said he likes to think of it as “Adult Boy Scouts.”

“CERT is not here to do the regular job of firefighters or police officers,” he said, “but if and when that day comes that we have a disaster so big that our professionals are overwhelmed, then there is a citizens’ group of people who can help do some of the basic things you need to do in a disaster response.”

Training people for such disasters is just one of the group’s goals. Johnson said CERT hopes to become a “deployable” resource for the city in 2014 so that they will have a pool of trained citizens available to assist either the Juneau Police Department, Capital City Fire and Rescue or other agencies, should they request help.

“Anybody can go through CERT, and they don’t have to become a volunteer, but if they wanted to go further and be deployable, they would go through the advanced training track, and a background check run, so they would be the ones that ask to do that,” he said.

Other goals for 2014 include obtaining more certified CERT trainers, expanding CERT’s reach to outlying Southeast communities and finding new partnering agencies.

All CERT volunteers are unpaid. The organization obtains funding through a state grant, called the Local Emergency Planning Committee Grant, funneled to the City and Borough of Juneau’s Local Emergency Planning Committee. The grant amount varies annually; this year the city was awarded $19,000, which covers both expenses for the LEPC and CERT.

“The CERT team falls under the umbrella of the LEPC — LEPC funding passes through to CERT — so we purchase gear kits for CERT training and print materials and carry that expense through the grant,” said Brown, the grant coordinator.

Brown said the city has an interest in encouraging CERT to be active in the community. The city views it as one more way to encourage personal preparedness for a disaster, plus a way to be useful to the community, she said.

“My personal thought is I think everyone should feel empowered to be able to help themselves,” she added. “It will help everyone be a lot more prepared, even in little tiny emergencies like the snowstorm we experienced a few weeks ago, out the road with the generators gone — that’s a teeny-meeny view of what can happen. If everybody prepares themselves individually, then as a community we can be prepared a lot better.”

Johnson also brought up the theme of empowerment and said that’s what it’s all about.

“Everybody has different lifestyles and a different understanding of the world, and I think that if I can at least give people the opportunity to feel empowered when they feel a sense of powerlessness, if you can give back just a little of that stability, that’s my goal,” he said. “I want people to feel safe, even while the world is collapsing around you.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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