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San Diego’s CERT Program Mobilizes Volunteers During the Pandemic
By Annelise Jolley
Humans are hard-wired to help. But in the wake of a natural disaster, well-meaning civilians can do more harm than good. Back in 2003, spurred on by the devastating Cedar Fire, the City of San Diego searched for ways to safely equip locals to respond to emergencies. International examples—a tsunami in Japan, an earthquake in Mexico City—had shown that civilians could help, but they had to know how. Out of a desire to equip volunteers to respond to disaster, San Diego’s Community Emergency Response Team program was born.
Developed by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, the CERT San Diego program empowers locals to safely mobilize and respond during disaster. Past tragedies have resulted in an outpouring of volunteer support, and CERT harnesses this support by establishing neighborhood emergency response teams. “We give people a toolbox of skills and knowledge for how to think and act in a disaster,” says Carie Chouinard, CERT San Diego Program Manager.
Chouinard emphasizes that CERT does not activate often. “Our first responders have the capacity to handle [most disasters] successfully. Where CERT comes in is [during] widespread, major disasters that stretch our first responders to the limit for days on end, when people are cut off from resources.” CERT trains volunteers to prepare for and respond to these events, and equips them to keep themselves and their neighbors safe.
To become a CERT volunteer, participants attend a four-day academy where they receive hands-on training from San Diego Fire-Rescue personnel using FEMA curriculum. During the academy they learn what to do in a disaster when professional resources are overwhelmed, and how to do it safely. Volunteers learn life-saving practices, such as transporting injured patients from the disaster location to a triage area. The goal is to build established neighborhood CERT programs that can help people through the first few hours or days of a major disaster.
Traditionally, CERT teams are trained to respond to natural disasters. But disaster response during a pandemic looks very different. Wildfires and earthquakes follow an expected pattern, with a defined starting point and an established response plan. “But with a pandemic, we can’t see it,” Chouinard says. “You can’t put your hands on it to manage or slow it down.” During the COVID pandemic—an unprecedented and invisible disaster—the CERT program has adapted its methods.
Over the last few months, these trained and mobilized volunteer groups have stepped in to fill what Chouinard calls “human power gaps” in San Diego’s emergency response. “What became clear early on was that there was a need to feed our people,” she says. “We needed to support the social safety net of our communities, like food distribution.” So rather than mobilizing into traditional disaster response, CERT jumped in to help feed the city.
Thanks to extensive training, CERT’s team structure and and support over the past decade from the SDG&E Safe San Diego Grant Initiative, volunteers can receive ongoing training to quickly come together as boots on the ground. As soon as Governor Newsom authorized liability coverage to extend to volunteers at food distribution sites, San Diego’s CERT program activated, sending volunteers to support emergency drive-through food distribution events. Currently, 16 CERT programs are participating in San Diego’s Mutual Aid for COVID-19 response. During the coronavirus pandemic, these volunteers have supported Feeding San Diego, the San Diego Foodbank, and their community-based partners. They’ve filled food packing shifts. at their warehouses and distributed food at large- and small-scale events. A grant from SDG&E provided personal protection equipment and standardized Incident Command go-bags to the teams.
Chouinard’s team is also working to mobilize CERT participants who are unable to volunteer in person during the pandemic. Regardless of age or underlying health conditions, these volunteers can make an impact through phone calls or virtual trainings. “Anyone who wants to be an active CERT member can be,” Chouinard stresses. “We trained people from all stages and walks of life. I’ve been through 23 academies and have seen everyone from eighteen-year-olds fresh out of high school all the way up to someone in her late seventies.”
There is one way that the pandemic follows the pattern of natural disasters. Ever since San Diegans started sheltering in place, Chouinard has seen an outpouring of volunteer support. Her interest list for the CERT academy currently has 337 applicants.
Most locals won’t become CERT-trained volunteers. But everyone can do their part to prepare for disaster, and to equip themselves and their neighbors to respond safely and efficiently. Chouinard says that the first step everyone can take is to plan ahead. “Preparedness begins with thinking,” she says. “You have to think about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to respond. Who needs to know? Where are you going to go? What will you need when you get there?”
Disaster preparedness comes in different shapes and sizes. But whether we prepare for a pandemic or a wildfire, a little bit of forward-thinking goes a long way.