It’s just a drill... But some local volunteers are making sure they’re ready for a real emergency

Members of Salem’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) practiced several key exercises during a training last year, from putting out small fires to rescuing someone who might be trapped in their home due to a natural disaster.


Members of Salem’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) practiced several key exercises during a training last year, from putting out small fires to rescuing someone who might be trapped in their home due to a natural disaster.

Are you prepared for any emergency that could threaten your health and safety? Are you ready to help others in your neighborhood in case of a disaster?

Your local Community Emergency Response Team can help.

“A key element in preparing for disasters involves having a good neighborhood plan, and caching items that may be in limited supply, such as water,” says Roger Stevenson, head of Salem’s CERT program. “CERT training classes are offered on a regular basis. Once trained, the new members are put in touch with key members located in their neighborhoods.”

Stevenson says the Salem Fire Department’s program is free of charge and open to all who live or work in the city of Salem.

“During major disasters, the CERT members provide an initial response in the neighborhoods to assist the local firefighters,” he says. “CERT teams are encouraged to work with their neighboring teams to coordinate actions. Other agencies have CERT programs, and we collaborate as the need arises.

“The advantage to having a CERT team program involves the added trained assets that are available to any jurisdiction,” Stevenson adds. “A safer volunteer response is available to help with the basic tasks during a disaster.”

The CERT concept was birthed by the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1985 to train civilians to meet their immediate needs.

“CERT began after the firefighters returned from the Mexico earthquake,” Stevenson says. “To protect the emergent volunteers and make their response safer, they devised the CERT program that eventually went national.”

Today, under the umbrella of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), this unique disaster volunteer program, now in 28 states and Puerto Rico, educates and trains teams to help their neighborhoods, businesses and communities.

Marion County has 11 CERT programs, including one in Spanish and one for the county. A CERT program is now forming in the Gervais area. Other program locations include: Gates, Keizer, Marion County, Mount Angel, Salem, East Salem, Silverton, Stayton, Turner and Woodburn.

“Relating to the CERT program, there are 13 equipment caches located across the Salem neighborhoods,” Stevnenson says. “Homeland Security and FEMA grant funds have been instrumental in creating these caches and the equipment inside them.”

According to FEMA, the CERT course will benefit any citizen who takes it, while better preparing them to respond to and cope with the aftermath of a disaster.

“This is a great way to connect with neighbors,” says Kate Gallagher, with the Sumpter Neighborhood CERT team in Salem. “We were new to the area and knew no one. We aren’t ‘joiners’ by nature, but got hooked on the CERT information and organization. Now we feel like we belong to our neighborhood. Really worth your time.”

All CERT members must complete the six-week, hands-on, intensive training course administered by a sponsoring agency such as an emergency management agency, fire or police department. Participants learn disaster preparedness, fire suppression, medical operations, search and rescue, disaster psychology and team preparedness. Taught by FEMA coursework-trained instructors, the course finishes with a review of coursework and a disaster simulation.

“Typically, our scenarios deal with earthquakes, here in the Cascadia Zone region,” Stevenson says. “For CERT members, emergencies have common elements that increase or decrease dependent upon the magnitude of the event.”

To keep up-to-date, team members may attend periodic refresher sessions. Additionally, CERT teams can sponsor events such as drills, picnics, neighborhood cleanup, and disaster education fairs to help hone their skills.

“Here in the Pacific Northwest we live with the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake potential,” Stevenson says. “It is imperative that the public prepare themselves to be self- sufficient for 10 to14 days. A number of Citizen Corps programs assist in making our communities more resilient to disaster. CERT is just one of them.”

Four other Citizen Corps programs are Neighborhood Watch, Medical Reserve Corps, Volunteers in Police Service and Fire Corps, Stevenson says.

“In the long run, a CERT program in the neighborhood provides elements that make that area more resilient to all forms of Northwest major or minor disasters.”

CERT program leaders and their contact information can be found on Marion County’s website, co.marion.or.us.

Over the past 14 years, officials say Polk County’s CERT program has “grown into a vibrant program that supports multiple agencies in the county: Independence Police Department (sponsoring agency), Monmouth Police Department, Dallas Police Department, Polk County Fire District #1, and Western Oregon University. More information can be found at polkcountycert.org.

“However you choose to serve our program, I’m confident that you will find your experience to be a truly rewarding one,” says Kimber Townsend, program coordinator and course manager for the Independence Police Department. IPD is the sponsoring agency for Polk County’s CERT program.

The city of Salem has links to CERT team information. The site also provides links to preparation tips and the latest updates about severe weather, road conditions, stream levels, city closures, and situations that threaten health or safety, at cityofsalem.net.

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