Getting ready for 'the Big One'

It’s been an hour since the earthquake hit. Cell phone service is down and neighbors are starting to panic. No one can get through to report injuries to police or fire departments and it may be unsafe to stay indoors.

What would you do?

In an effort to find meaningful answers to that horrifying hypothetical, 42 local residents came to La Cañada Flintridge City Hall Saturday for the first of three free Community Emergency Response Training classes offered by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The training is designed to prepare citizens to assume the role of ad-hoc block captains and organizers in the event of a large-scale emergency or natural disaster.

“When there’s a major disaster, we’re going to be overwhelmed,” firefighter and CERT coordinator Steven Harper told participants. “That’s why we’re here in this class, so you can prepare yourself in case of an event.”

As introductions were made around the room, students were asked to share a talent or skill they could bring to bear in the event of an emergency. One man mentioned being fluent in Italian, while another admitted having experience building movie sets.

“Being able to translate is huge, and being able to build things is even better,” said Dan O’Neil, a firefighter with 20 years experience. “If we’re in a disaster, that’s what we’ll need.”

Introductions continued and the skills added up — nursing, food service, engineering. The exercise is all a part of building cooperative community action, according to Stephanie English, community services representative for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

“The message we bring is neighbor helping neighbor,” English said. “Everybody has a skill they can bring to the table — they just may not know what it is.”

La Cañada resident Sam Dea works as a regional planner for Los Angeles County. After recommending the CERT class to others, he decided to enroll himself. Dea, whose awareness was raised by the Japan earthquakes, wants to be able to take care of his family, co-workers or neighbors should an emergency strike. “We’re putting a disaster kit together, so I thought I should take the class, too,” he said.

A campus safety manager for Flintridge Prep, La Cañadan Michael Lyman saw taking the class as his professional duty. “It’s something fundamental,” he said of disaster preparedness. “Anyone who’s chosen the field should entertain the thought of doing it.”

CERT classes used to be run under FEMA but now are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. Due to scaled-back budgets, trainers come in on regular shifts or volunteer on their days off to teach sessions, English said.

As classes progress, participants learn about fire suppression, medical treatment, light search and rescue and dealing with hazardous materials. In a demonstration at Saturday’s training, students took turns putting out small fires with an extinguisher. They learned to hold the extinguisher’s nozzle steady and make sweeping motions with it from the base of the fire upward.

The idea, Harper said, is to not only to give students information, but provide hands-on experience so they feel confident enough to act when the fires and injuries are real.

“Now they’ll feel a little more empowered to take care of themselves and their neighbors. That’s what we hope to do — empower them,” Harper said.

In the third and final CERT class, participants will be assigned roles to play in a simulated disaster drill. Some will be “injured” and others will organize search-and-rescue teams. One trainee will assume the role of incident commander in charge of organizing the entire team’s disaster response.

The things they learn today can and will be used eventually, English said.

“We’re on the center of the San Andreas fault line,” she added. “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”


The next series of CERT classes will be held at the Crescenta Valley Park Community Room June 11, 18 and 25. To register, or for a class schedule, visit or call (661) 287-3690.

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