Photo by Barbara Brown
Community Board 2 CERT members practicing first aid on a dummy.
Making CERTain they’re ready in case of emergency
By Bonnie Rosenstock
A car bomb went off. Receiving the call, teams of trained volunteers rushed to the scene to assist the first responders — the police, firefighters and other emergency personnel. The teams extinguished small fires, calmed and controlled the crowd, moved along the traffic, gave CPR to victims.
Eerie or prophetic, this was the New York City Community Emergency Response Team graduation simulation exercise two years ago, recalled Barbara Brown, deputy team chief of Community Board 2’s CERT (officially known as CERT MN 2).
Fortunately, the recent car bomb attempt at Times Square fizzled. But if it had been real, CERT units would have been ready to respond. CERT members are volunteers throughout the five boroughs who have undergone an intensive ten-week training program in emergency preparedness led by the city’s Office of Emergency Management and fire and police departments. They are trained in basic response skills needed for fire safety, light search and rescue, disaster medical operations and traffic control. They may be called upon to respond to locally occurring disasters and support emergency personnel. During non-emergencies, they assist public safety agencies and local community boards with public events, such as marathons, walkathons, bikeathons and block parties when requested.
The concept was developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985 and was first employed during the Whittier Narrows Earthquake in 1987, when roads were impassable and communities were stranded. In 2003, President George W. Bush created Citizen Corps to coordinate community volunteer teams, and New York City CERT was designated the initiative’s key program. In November of that year, the city’s Office of Emergency Management received federal funding to provide CERT training to New Yorkers. The objective is to have a CERT in all 59 of the city’s community board districts because residents know their communities best. Also, in case first responders are delayed, trained neighborhood people can provide immediate aid.
At the time of the two successive crane collapses on the Upper East Side — on May 31 and June 2, 2008 — there were not many CERT’s that had sufficient training; the program had begun in 2005. So three groups of CERT’s from different community boards, including a unit based in Stuyvesant Town, got called up to assist. They helped with crowd control and worked for days to inventory who lived in the affected apartments, helped get information about the tenants’ safety and whereabouts and acted as a communication link with the tenants.
“They weren’t involved in hands-on search and rescue — although they learned that,” said Robin Leaman of the C.B. 2 CERT team. “We don’t go into burning buildings, but we get emergency training in what we may not have to apply. However, if the first responders aren’t there, we are trained to do CPR. We also assist in mundane things like handing out water and calming injured people.”
The Fire Department and Police Department contribute to the CERT curriculum, which includes dealing with the general public, being sensitive to different religious and ethnic groups and entering a collapsed building, as well as transportation issues, how to walk subway tracks and chemical warfare.
C.B. 2 CERT members are drawn mostly from Greenwich Village, the East Village and the Lower East Side. (Community Board 2 itself covers the area from W. 14th St. to Canal St., west of the Bowery/Fourth Ave.) The team chief lives in Brooklyn but works and has a second residence in the area. Only two years old, the C.B. 2 CERT has about 14 active members. The ideal team is composed of 30 members.
In Community Board 3 — whose district covers the East Village and Lower East Side — the CERT is based in Chinatown, “a very active group,” noted Brown, who lives on Grand St.
O.E.M. supplied program graduates with things they need to respond to a local crisis, including a backpack containing goggles, gloves, a hard hat, whistles and a first-aid kit. But equipment alone does not a volunteer make. Training to maintain certification is ongoing, like yearly CPR refreshers. C.B. 2 CERT meets monthly for two hours, usually in the basement of Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Carmine St.
“You keep forming and strengthening yourself as a team,” explained Leaman, who lives on E. Fourth St. and is an outreach coordinator for Visiting Neighbors, a group assisting local seniors. “We turn out for different events O.E.M. calls us to do, we take additional courses, do team-building exercises and are constantly increasing our abilities to serve as a community response team,” she said.
The Battery Park City CERT is a strong, well-funded team with around 50 to 60 active members, according to Brown. After 9/11, they received a lot of money, and they deal with the waterfront. The C.B. 2 team is in the process of getting its 501C3 nonprofit status, so that they can solicit funds from neighborhood establishments. The funds will help them rent storage space to keep extra bottles of water and to buy supplies, like flashlights and extra windbreakers.
New York City CERT’s also educate their communities on emergency preparedness through the Ready New York program and build community disaster networks. Brown does training in local schools with materials supplied by O.E.M.
Brown is resident of the Seward Park co-op, “high-rise buildings with 1,000 people on 13 acres,” she said. “There are a good deal of elderly and families with young children there. It’s given me a chance to reach out to my neighbors and find out who they are in case of an emergency. Being prepared is to have a ‘go bag’ by the front door with prescription medications, contact lists, copies of valuable documents, a pet bag if they have a pet, and an arranged meeting place for family members in case of an event.”
Brown, who works for a children’s textbook publisher, started volunteering after 9/11, so it seemed like a natural fit to be part of CERT. In a week or so, her team will drill in disaster simulation at the Con Ed building on E. 14th St.
“The team wants to do something,” she said. “Sometimes we get frustrated that we don’t get called up. We were put on standby during a hurricane a year and a half ago. But someday… .”
The next CERT training is scheduled for September, with the exact time, date and location to be assigned. For more information, visit www.nyc.gov/cert or call 718-422-8585. For more information on the C.B. 2 CERT, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .