Be the Most Important Person

Why everyone should join their local CERT program

Many years ago, five days before Christmas in a tiny community in southwestern New Hampshire, where my father was a “selectman,” (The township was so small that they did not need a mayor, just three elected selectmen) at about 12:30 AM my father’s Mutual Aid radio woke the family. I was on leave from the US Navy, bringing my parent’s first grandchild for a visit. My father told me to get dressed and follow him. My wife and mother followed in a separate car.  

We arrived to find an historic home fully engulfed in flames. The family — mom, dad and six children — were outside in their bedclothes in knee-deep snow. Many of the locals had already taken some of the children into their homes. My mother took the mother and the two youngest children into our car and to my parents’ house. The local volunteer fire department were able to live up to their nickname, "The Cellar Hole Savers,” as the structure collapsed into the cellar. The father was sheltered by the family that took in the eldest child. 

Flash forward to the present day, in Fairfax County, VA, I’ve been involved for years in our robust, local Community Emergence Response Team (“CERT") program. Developed by FEMA, CERT is a partnership between the federal and Fairfax County governments. Its intent is to promote the idea of the citizens in the local communities to become more engaged in making their community more prepared, safer and resilient if a disaster were to come. 

The program is operated by Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, through which training is accomplished at the Fire and Rescue training academy. The final training exercise for graduation is held at the academy’s burn houses where a mass casualty exercise is held where all the skills that were taught over eight weeks of training and lectures is put to good use. During an incident, an individual trained in CERT is the “Most Important Person” within their community.  One does no good for the community if they become a casualty during an incident or disaster.

CERT also teaches Personal preparation, communication skills — so that citizens all speak with the same protocol to EMS and fire and rescue personal — First Aid, light search and rescue, firefighting, disaster response, psychology and organization skills. Although the WuFlu pandemic has slowed the expansion of this FEMA developed and partially funded program, CERT is still recruiting participants 18 years old and older. This training makes one eligible to participate in an Urban Search and Rescue Virginia Task Force One mass casualty training that take places in the County’s Lorton training facility.

CERT is really about bringing our neighbors and friends together. It is about training for a disaster that may never come, and caring for those less fortunate. We volunteer to assist with food collection and distribution and other activities including parking and crowd control during several annual activities including the National Night Out and other local events. I hosted an Amateur Radio (Ham) GOTA (Get on The Air) activity last year. This year I hope to have more than one participant. 

My community within the tiny section of Old Trail Drive that encompasses us, is such a wonderfully diverse group of people. I want to actively encourage them to prepare for the worst (which I suspect would be a forest fire given the number of trees in the area) and reach out to their neighbors for fellowship.

While my CERT class of 141 was mostly white, the leader of the Reston Chapter is a beautiful black woman. The object of the program is community preparedness, the community is so diverse that one cannot discount the Sikh, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Arab, Black, Indonesian or the recent immigrant. Community is everything and everyone when looking at the CERT program. 

The day after the incident in New Hampshire many years ago, my father, having a civil engineer with a structural engineering background, visited the site. The foundation was deemed to be stable and suitable to be built upon. The local historic society was present to approve the reconstruction of a landmark. The construction was to be per current building code, but would appear period accurate. A local lumber yard had delivered all the lumber needed for framing and after the cellar was excavated a local concrete company arrived to reinforce the field stone basement walls and floor. The ground floor was framed and sheathed before the sunset that night.

Four days later, using donated materials and the community’s labor, on Christmas day the family was able to move back into their home. No, there were no finished walls but there was a working toilet and bath with privacy, a working kitchen and central heating. There was also a fully decorated Christmas tree with presents for every member of the family from the townsfolk. This was done for a family that was only two years in the community. 

This is what CERT means to me. It means giving to the community, and the community giving back to those who are in need. This is why I joined the military. To give selflessly to my country. This is also why I joined Fairfax Country’s Community Emergency Response Team. To protect and enhance my community. This is why I believe everyone should join CERT or request their local government to partner with FEMA to start a Community Emergency Response Team program.