We were recently invited by a college in upstate New York to participate in a Fire Safety Day. The campus is in a rural area with about 10,000 resident students and 60,000 daily commuters. Like many college campuses, there are classrooms, cafeterias, research laboratories, arenas, common areas and dormitories. This campus also has an adjacent community hospital that is operated by the college.
The safety staff runs a tight ship and does a great job of understanding and meeting the safety needs of faculty, students and employees. The environmental group is equally robust in making sure that the campus complies with environmental regulations while reaching their sustainability goals.
Among the many things that stood out during our visit was the involvement of the campus’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) during the Fire Safety Day events.
CERT is already well-established in some communities and is steadily becoming more recognized in others. For those who aren’t familiar with CERT, the concept was developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department in the mid-1980s. The department believed that when there was a large-scale community disaster, professional first responders (e.g. fire, police and medical services) could be overwhelmed and unable to meet everyone’s needs. But who could help alleviate this issue? Trained citizens.
A key component of CERT programs is to help everyone be prepared so that when a disaster strikes or an emergency happens they can be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Preparedness means having a 72-hour kit available for each family member, having an emergency plan for your family and making sure that they all know what to do in an emergency. CERT members are also trained to:
- Use fire extinguishers
- Help organize volunteers
- Perform light search and rescue
- Conduct triage
- Provide first aid
- Staff emergency shelters
- Support professional first responders
CERT members are also taught about incident command structure and how they fit into the community’s disaster response framework.
Because I am a CERT instructor, I was naturally curious to learn more about the university’s CERT and how they function. A college campus is really sort of a small city, and it certainly makes sense to have a CERT that is specifically focused on responding to disasters and other critical campus events.
This university’s CERT has been active on campus since 2008. The team works with the university emergency management staff on campus and the residence life office. They also provide support for the surrounding community, such as helping with traffic and crowd control.
Too often, we see the news in the aftermath of a campus-related disaster with frantic students in panic mode. It was refreshing to see such a large group of students who are willing to take the time to learn what to do when there is an emergency and help others. We all hope that we never need to use our emergency response training, but hope isn’t a plan and it isn’t a substitute for being prepared. The training that these students received in their path to becoming CERT members and the drills that they participate in will serve them well. When there is a disaster, they won’t be the terrified students in the evening news — they’ll be the ones guiding others to safety and helping out.
In my own community, it has been great to watch our CERT grow. I enjoy teaching citizens how to be better prepared. It’s also been exciting to see three different facilities in our county bring in CERT trainers to train their entire staff so that all of their employees will be better prepared for emergencies — both in and outside of their facilities. We don’t get to pick our disasters and emergencies, but we do get to choose whether or not we’re ready.