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Community Emergency Response Teams prepared for disaster

Submitted by on 1, July 15, 2009 – 6:00 amNo Comment

Photos from the Alameda Fire Department's CERT website

dummy1Tom Schweich’s interest in disaster preparedness sprang from what some might consider an unusual source: Vacation trips with geologists.

On those trips, the network engineer witnessed terrestrial beauty, but he also became acutely aware of the risks of earthquakes he is certain will come. So he took the Alameda Fire Department’s Community Emergency Response Team training. And since there was no team in his Fernside neighborhood, he started one.

“The fire department is going to be totally overwhelmed” when a big earthquake hits, Schweich said. “We’re sort of the first people (who can respond) in our neighborhood.”

Schweich’s is one of 17 CERTs in Alameda in what one fire officials said is likely one of the most active programs in the state. The teams had 260 members, Schweich said, and the fire department’s training program has had more than 700 graduates since 2005.

They’re preparing to help out an Island that otherwise has limited emergency response capabilities and could end p waiting days for out-of-town help when a major disaster strikes.

Many of the teams are on Bay Farm Island and Harbor Bay, which has a long history of emergency preparedness. Fred Blas said he took the fire department’s first CERT course in May 2002 and helped to start the emergency response teams there in large part because his neighborhood is even more isolated from help than those on the main Island.

“We learned from past experience that help isn’t going to be coming immediately,” said Blas, who pointed out that Bay Farm has just five firefighters to serve thousands of residents who could be impacted by an earthquake. “If a major earthquake happens, five firefighters aren’t going to be much help to the people on Bay Farm.”

The teams on Harbor Bay were successful in getting residents to install automatic shutoff valves in 1,000 homes – a move that could dramatically reduce gas fires in an earthquake – and raising money from local businesses and residents for two disaster response trailers.

Blas helped grow Alameda’s CERT presence from eight teams in 2005 to the 17 it has now, working with others to establish an Island-wide CERT in August 2005. (The groups also work closely with the Island’s ham radio club, which offers separate training and licensing help.)

The fire department offers free CERT classes that anyone can register for online. The next set of classes starts September 12.

The classes, which run for six consecutive Saturdays, include instruction in personal preparedness, fire suppression, disaster medical response and terrorism response, closing with a daylong search and rescue and final exercise to practice what participants have learned.

Erin Christ, the fire department’s CERT coordinator, said that residents need to be able to take care of themselves in a major disaster because her department won’t be able to help everyone at once. Christ said many people don’t know earthquake basics like how much water to have or what to do if they’re in their car or away from home when an earthquake hits.

The classes teach that and more, including how to respond to a disaster within the limits of your training. And here on the Island they fill up fast, she said, even drawing Boy Scout troops and high school students seeking community service hours. (Christ also suggested participants drop in on the final exercise as a refresher course, every two years.)

Schweich’s CERT group, which covers 950 homes bounded by Broadway, Fernside and the water, is holding a potluck picnic from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 18 in the Lincoln Park picnic area. He said anyone who’s interested in meeting neighbors or learning about disaster preparedness is invited.

The department will have a CERT booth at the upcoming Park Street Art & Wine Faire, which is Jult 25-26 (the booth with be right in front of Fire Station One at Park and Encinal, Christ says).

You can also get more information on disaster preparedness and CERT and sign up for classes on the department’s CERT website.

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