Our Laguna: Working on their CERT-ification

Members of the city's Emergency Disaster Preparedness Committee were seen poking into rooms, alcoves and closets at the Susi Q on Wednesday night — and for good reason.

They were among the 34 participants taking the CERT course, learning that night how to conduct searches for disaster victims inside and outside a building.

CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team. The program helps prepare people to respond to emergency situations in their communities. Classes are taught by first-responders and a CERT-trained leader.

"In a disaster like the Bluebird Canyon landslide, we rely on assistance from other communities to help our police and fire department, but if the 'big one' hits, Laguna could be isolated," said Police Lt. Darin Lenyi, the program's supervisor. "CERT gives us a pool of trained emergency disaster response volunteers to assist the police, firefighters and the community."

The course began March 21 and will conclude May 5. It consists of six, 2.5-hour classes on Wednesday nights and one Saturday class. No absences are allowed.

"We are required to complete 25 hours of training," said Sue Kempf, chairwoman of the Emergency Disaster Preparedness Committee.

Committee members Matt Lawson, Gary Beverage, Sandi Cain and John Kountz, chief of Laguna's Emergency Radio operators, known as Hams, are also enrolled. Committee members David Horne and Dave Sanford already have already completed the program, and Ann Quilter is out of town. Richard Picheny is not participating because of a conflict with travel plans.

"The committee is very engaged in the development of neighborhood organization to prepare for emergencies, and this training is one aspect of that," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson, who originated the committee and serves as its council liaison.

The City Council approved $2,500 for the training class, but the committee will look for additional funding, according to Kempf.

When emergencies happen, CERT members can give critical support to first-responders, provide immediate assistance and comfort to victims, and organize spontaneous volunteers at a disaster site.

Training includes disaster preparedness, fire safety, basic disaster medical operations, traffic control and scene management, terrorism awareness, disaster psychology, and light search & rescue operations.

CERT members are advised not to go into heavily damaged structures. They should search only buildings with light to moderate damage and moderately damaged buildings only if people need help.

Universal symbols are used to indicate CERT volunteers, professional entrances and exits from the buildings, the number of injured removed, and the number of injured or dead still inside.

CERT members can also help with nonemergency projects that help improve the safety of the community.

They take the California oath of affirmation of allegiance for public officers and employees, administered in most cases in Laguna by City Clerk Martha Anderson. However, at Lenyi's request, she deputized him to give the oath to CERT participants who pass the course.

Participants must be at least 18, a resident or employee in Laguna, and have no felony convictions.

Laguna Beach Public Safety Dispatcher Jordan Villwock is the CERT coordinator and main instructor. He draws on other city personnel for their expertise in specific areas.

"We have different instructors depending on the training module," said Kempf. "Last week it was [Officer] Andy Peck, who has a lot of post-9/11 terrorism training."

On Wednesday, Fire Department engineer Robert Abija was the instructor, assisted by firefighter Jereme Lazar.

The class, which was broken up into teams, was taught how to conduct systematic searches for disaster victims and what to do with them when they were found — how to lift and move them to safety or medical care, and how to stay safe themselves.

"Two is one; one is none," Abija said. "Use the buddy system. If you get injured, you have backup."

In the devastating 1985 earthquake in Mexico that killed almost 10,000, untrained volunteers saved 800 people, according to the CERT manual. However, 100 volunteers lost their lives while attempting to save others.

"With training, at least some of those deaths could have been avoided," Lenyi said.

California is as vulnerable to earthquakes as Mexico is. There is also San Onofre to worry about. And in Laguna, you can add landslides.

"Good enough reasons to be prepared," Lenyi said.

But most folks aren't, which is why CERT-trained and prepared community volunteers are needed.

Preparation includes collecting and maintaining a disaster response kit — gloves, goggles, mask, and disaster supplies such as bandages, flashlights, dressings — that volunteers will need during a disaster.

"People rely on emergency services, but there just are not enough to go around in a major disaster," said Lenyi. "Trained volunteers can alleviate that."

It is important to keep participants who have completed the training involved and practiced in their skills, according to the CERT manual.

Lenyi said refresher sessions will be held to reinforce the basic training.

CERT teams can also sponsor events such as drills, picnics, neighborhood cleanups and disaster education fairs, which will keep them involved and hone their skills.

The CERT concept was developed and implemented by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985, according to CERT documents. The Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987 underscored the areawide threat of a major disaster in California and confirmed the need for training civilians to meet their immediate needs.

Since 1993, when this training was made available nationally by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, communities in 28 states and Puerto Rico have conducted CERT training.

A new class is scheduled for September in Laguna. The date and method of enrollment will be publicized.

Participants in the current course include Montage Resort Director of Security Chad Pohle and Assistant Director Brad Emerson, Surf & Sand Security Director David Kubik and Security Officer James Lawson, and Laguna Beach residents Victoria Strombom, Steve Dotoratos and Vic Opincar.

"This is an opportunity to contribute a meaningful community service and is good cross-training for my volunteer police work," Opincar said.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 302-1469 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

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