Apodaca: CERT-ifiably prepared for disasters in Newport

Matt Brisbois has slept little since being awakened by a late-night phone call March 10, in which he received the news that Japan had suffered a major earthquake and that the ensuing tsunami could be headed our way.

As the Newport Beach Fire Department's community-preparedness coordinator, he was part of a team charged with communicating with other agencies in coastal Orange County and carrying out plans to inform the public of the tsunami risk.

Fortunately, Newport Beach dodged a bullet. The threat never reached the level of a tsunami warning, at which point the city would have begun evacuating low-lying areas.

But a sad aspect of human nature is that it often takes a tragedy to awaken us from complacency. That held true this week as the nightmare in Japan continued to unfold, reminding Californians of our own fragile existence.

Since the Japan quake, Matt has fielded nonstop phone calls from concerned residents, other public service workers and pesky journalists like me. But when I called him earlier this week, he was gracious and generous with his time, despite his exhaustion.

"The big message is that Newport Beach is just as vulnerable as Japan," he said. "We need to prepare for this event now."

Thanks in large part to Matt, that's exactly what's happening. The amiable, 33-year-old Lido Isle resident runs the city's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, a concept started in Los Angeles in the 1980s that is now part of a nationwide effort. It's backed by federal, state and local funding to teach citizens how to survive a disaster.

Newport Beach has one of the biggest and most successful CERT programs in the country. The city has more than 650 CERT graduates — including yours truly — and has given some emergency preparedness training to another 600. I completed the program in the fall of 2007, making me part of a corps of citizen volunteers who can spring into action when needed.

The basic theory behind CERT is that if a major earthquake, flood, fire, tsunami, terrorist attack or other disaster hits us, the professional safety agencies will be overwhelmed. It could be days before rescuers arrive, so it will be incumbent upon us layfolk to help ourselves.

CERT students learn to prepare emergency supplies and make family and neighborhood disaster plans. They are taught the basics of post-disaster organization, light search-and-rescue techniques, fire suppression, CPR and the psychological effects of trauma. And they're studied in the importance of keeping a cool head and using common sense during a crisis.

In an emergency, CERT volunteers might be called upon to provide critical information to help police, firefighters and other first responders decide how to best deploy their resources. CERT team members in less affected areas can also be summoned to lend a hand in crisis zones.

Newport Beach is unique, Matt said, because of the proliferation of homeowners associations; the city has more than 150. So he is on a quest to develop a team of trained volunteers in each one. So far, 14 homeowners groups are "completely organized," he said, and another 20 are well on the way.

"Balboa Island is probably one of the most organized places in the U.S.," Matt said. "It's in a very vulnerable area, but they have a full plan."

Another 70 CERT students will soon graduate from the two classes Matt is supervising, and a new round of classes will be offered again in the fall. In addition, Matt and his colleague Katie Eing, Newport Beach's emergency services coordinator, work closely to ensure that local businesses and schools also have emergency plans in place.

Matt also regularly fulfills requests to do presentations at neighborhood meetings, and he's organized the recruitment and training of about 90 ham radio operators who could be called upon to keep communication flowing during an emergency.

All of which makes Matt one busy guy. But he's not complaining; indeed, I doubt he'll rest until Newport Beach is as prepared for calamity as is humanly possible.

On Tuesday night, I stopped by Fire Station No. 7, where the CERT training classes are. The evening's topic was "Light Search and Rescue," led by Fire Capt. Kevin Tiscareno. But before the lesson got started, Matt was peppered with questions about events in Japan and what they could mean for us — all of which he answered with his usual thoroughness.

Later, as the regular program got underway, Matt slipped out for a brief but well-deserved respite. Nodding back toward the class, he said, "I hope we never have to use any of it."

But when I got home, Matt's message of preparing for the worst — while hoping for the best — kicked in. I took my old CERT materials out of the closet, dusted off my helmet, and begin reviewing my disaster survival training.

When the Big One hits, I'll know what to do.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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