Disaster? Citizens to the Rescue!

CERT supervisor Lt. Darin Lenyi oversees a CERT trainee learning to light a flare in a program to equip citizens with the basic skills to become effective emergency responders.

“I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding,” yells a disaster victim sprawled on a staircase. Two people respond to the cries and evaluate the extent of the teen’s injuries, perform a bit of first aid, but leave the victim behind to ascend the next floor where more casualties await. The rescuers encounter a survivor apparently in shock, pacing aimlessly on a floor strewn with broken glass, but bypass him to hone in on a man pinned under debris. After assessing his position, they devise a makeshift fulcrum and lever to lift the detritus enough to pull him free.

The scene is Laguna Beach’s City Hall after a hypothetical earthquake and the rescuers are participants in Laguna’s first Community Emergency Response Team training program. While the broken glass must be imagined, real volunteers stand in as victims.

Earlier this month, 31 people who attended 25 hours of CERT instruction over the previous six weeks completed their training with two written exams, mock disaster and a small fire, orchestrated to test their mettle as emergency responders. The course teaches civilian volunteers how to respond in the wake of a disaster, equipping them with skills to meaningfully contribute to a possible emergency. Graduates may join the official CERT team that local police will call on in the event of emergencies such as flood, earthquake or fire.

Being able to rely on a cohort of trained civilians during a crisis can help free up police personnel at emergency scenes, said Lt. Darin Lenyi, the CERT program supervisor, who said that a majority of participants in this first class have opted to retain their status as team members.

In nearby towns, 200 or more CERT-trained citizens effectively buoy the manpower available to police and fire agencies in emergencies, said Lenyi. He hopes for a similar result here. Another training course is scheduled to begin on Nov. 1.

Drill or not, CERT teams took the training seriously. Performing the wrong procedure might prevent them from passing the course. But

Officer Rob Macdonald, right, and the first CERT class, which graduated recently after six weeks of instruction in how to respond to emergencies.

more than that, team members exuded a sense of purpose as an organizer described their mission in the mock scenario. They chose an incident commander to lead them and divided into groups to execute orders assigned by the leader. Clearly, the procedures seemed familiar to them. Some looked a little nervous, but most looked confident they knew how to react.

“You have to pay attention to everything around you, multi-task, stay calm, and as incident commander you have to listen, make decisions and document what you do, said Sue Kempf, a CERT trainee who completed the written tests, put out a fire and participated in a search and rescue mission.

Kempf co-chairs with Dave Sanford the city’s Emergency Disaster Preparedness committee, established last year in the wake of disastrous flooding in Laguna Canyon and downtown.

“The most important thing is to evaluate the situation; don’t just rush in,” said Kempf, with a more informed sense of the difficulties first-responders encounter in a disaster.

Another participant, retired civil engineer Vic Opincar, felt the challenge of assimilating newly learned  medical knowledge and search and rescue skills and applying them to a situation where victims needed prioritizing quickly. He highly recommends the training to others.

Resident Chad Pohle, director of security at the Montage resort, joined the program to network with police and fire crews and to “learn how to be more of a solution than a problem” in an emergency. CERT training gave him new resources, said Pohle, who was impressed by top-brass involvement by police and firefighers, including Lenyi and Deputy Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse. “You could tell how important they thought it was, and I think that struck a chord with the attendees,” he said. Lifeguards also participated in the program.

The program’s impetus came from police dispatcher Jordan Villwock who took CERT training elsewhere and, with Lenyi, pitched the program to the Emergency Disaster Preparedness Committee. “I think it’s a very important program for each community to have,” said Villwock. The committee recommended the CERT program to the City Council, which approved $2,500 to fund it. Most costs cover equipment for team members, including vests, hard hats, goggles, flashlight and a backpack full of disaster response gear.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for community members to get involved in something that could make a huge difference in somebody’s life in a disastrous situation,” Lenyi said.


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