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After an earthquake, neighbors will need the help of neighbors. Here’s how to set up your community




“Surviving in any disaster is helping the neighbor,” Margaret Vinci of the California Institute of Technology told community members in Spring Knowles, Murrieta, in July. (Gina Verazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Imagine that the big guy has just arrived. I already participated in the Los Angeles Times Unshaken newsletter series, so I was better prepared for a major earthquake than most of the others, but you’re still impressed. Emergency response vehicle sirens are miles away, but you and your neighbors need help now.

What can you do?

If you’re anything like the residents of Knolls of Murrieta, a group of three communities of over 55 residents in Riverside County, you know exactly what to do. That’s because neighborhoods participate in a Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, and mapping programs for your neighborhood.

Here’s what you need to know about preparing your area for success.

What is CERT?

“Surviving in any disaster is helping the neighbor,” Margaret Vinci, director of the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, said at a disaster preparedness event in Spring Knolls this month.

CERT is a national training program, but it began in Los Angeles County in 1985. The Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987 demonstrated the value of the program. It enables neighbors to help neighbors by providing education on basic disaster response skills, including first aid, search and rescue, and fire safety.

In the aftermath of a disaster, first responders usually focus on big issues such as fires or mudslides. So when it comes to helping yourself or others, a strong community can mean the difference between life and death.

Bonnie Kasler, a certified CERT trainer for Spring Knolls, lives through the “five elements” she learned in the military: Planning ahead prevents poor performance. Preparing for any disaster is the key to getting out well on the other side.

“Do what you can do,” she said, and for the rest, rely on your community.

There are four types of CERT programs available (standard, teen, on-campus and workplace), and active groups in all 50 states. They all apply the same principles of self-reliance to a particular community, and the initiation is the same in all scenarios.

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CERT training consists of nine learning modules – each covering a different aspect of emergency preparedness – over a period of approximately 40 hours.

Module 1 begins with an overview of general emergency preparedness, knowledge, and skills. The second focuses on what CERT is and what it means to be a member. Modules 3 and 4 focus on first aid, while Module 5 focuses on the psychological effects of disasters. The remaining modules cover topics including search and rescue, facilities and terrorism.

Cassler said her community has adapted the program to include the unique needs of a community 55 and older, including people with limited mobility.

Once you complete the courses, you will take an exam and participate in a mock emergency. Then you are an official member of the emergency response team in your community.

The exercises should be supervised and conducted by a certified trainer such as Casler. To become a certified trainer, you must seek approval from local first responder organizations.

Once you become a CERT-certified volunteer, you’ll need to keep up with your training and keep your emergency supplies in tip-top shape. When disaster strikes, whatever it may be, you will be a leader in your community and coordinate efforts with first responders to help with evacuations, damage control, and save lives.

The first line of defense will not be the fire department or the police; It will be you and then your neighbors. Joining or starting a CERT team is just another step you can take to make yourself more resilient in the face of disasters.

Bonnie Cassler talks to Spring Knolls neighbors on July 10 as Margaret Vinci of Caltech looks on. Cassler said her community has adapted the emergency response team in mind to meet the needs of a community over 55. (Gina Verazzi/Los Angeles Times)

What is your neighborhood map?

Seismologist Lucy Jones recently wrote that getting to know your neighbors is an essential component of your resilience after a disaster.

One way to do this is through Map Your Neighborhood, sponsored by the Earthquake Country Alliance. It was created to build community relationships.

Cindy Woody, who leads area coordinators at Spring Knolls, said you need to “get to know your people” so that the face offering help is familiar when disaster strikes.

The process of mapping your neighborhood involves creating a running list of the people who live in your community, what their needs are and what they have to give to the congregation. Does your neighbor two doors down have a generator on hand? If so, ask if the community can count on them to provide backup power in the event of a power outage. How about your neighbor across the street who uses a wheelchair? Make sure that someone can reach them and help them evacuate if necessary.

The program also includes preparation and safety tips that you can complete on your own and that you can complete with neighbors after a disaster.

Area coordinators keep a record of community members, what their needs are and what supplies they have to provide.

When combined with CERT, these two programs provide your community with a roadmap for navigating the aftermath of a disaster.

How do you get started in your area?

First check to see if a CERT has already been set up in your area. You can search by address, neighborhood or zip code.

If there isn’t one in your area, or you want to start a separate area for your area, you can register to become a CERT instructor and start your own group.

Woody recommends to CERT and Map Your Neighborhood that you start by recruiting a small group of neighbors, and then expand to the rest of your community.

If you’re interested in Map Your Neighborhood, see if your city actually sponsors groups. Pasadena, Signal Hill, Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles (under a different name), and other cities have established programs. If your area doesn’t have one, the Los Angeles Area Red Cross offers training to get started.

Emergency preparedness kit items are on display at the Spring Knolls Emergency Exhibit in Murrieta on July 10, 2021 (Gina Verazzi/Los Angeles Times)

What else can you do?

You don’t have to wait until Judgment Day to get to know your neighbors, Kasler said. Building social capital is just as important for everyday needs as it is for emergencies.

Things like heat waves and power outages can create problems for your community, too, said Alan Hanson, Spring Knolls CERT coordinator. Knowing who might need help and how to help them under what circumstances is the goal of these programs and is something that the community in Murrieta underscores.

But when it comes to a disaster, Woody said, everyone can participate “no matter your age or disability.” The adage “take a village” is especially true when it comes to recovering after a major disaster.

Some people may not feel comfortable participating for one reason or another. It’s OK to call 911 for emergencies, or call non-emergency messages if you see something that needs addressing, said Doug Strossneider, a fire inspector for the Morita Fire Department.

Woody said the COVID-19 pandemic was a disaster that no one expected, but because of the training and communications made through CERT and Map Your Neighborhood in her community, they have been able to revitalize and help those in need. Instead of evacuating or providing first aid, she said, district coordinators were bringing groceries and cat food to residents. The principle was the same: neighbors help neighbors.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.




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