Thursday, March 27, 2014

Being Prepared Is Practically Cheating: Fairfax County CERT Spring 2014 Final Exercise

On Saturday, March 22, 52 students from Fairfax County's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) classes 78, 79, and 80 faced a final exercise specifically designed to test the disaster response skills they'd learned over the previous seven weeks, in a realistic training environment filled with wrecked buildings and live human victim actors.

The CERT students tore through the scenario, rescuing 64 victims and completing a lifting and cribbing skills challenge in near-record time.

How'd they do so well, so fast? They cheated.

Or, more accurately, they prepared so thoroughly in advance, when CERT command staff and rescuers executed their plan, they started so quickly and were so efficient and effective it practically looked like they were cheating.

Command Staff Pre-Planning
CERTs don't operate in the complete unknown; instead, when called to respond in their communities, they rely on their knowledge of local vulnerabilities, resources, and hazards, and combine it with their CERT training. Given the rough outlines of the scenario (a hurricane striking a local retirement community) in advance, the command staff began to plan.

CERT IC Rob Pratten, Accountability lead Suzanne Anglewicz, and Assistant IC Jamie DeMonaco confer at the Command Post. Photo: Joe Loong
 Rob Pratten, tapped to be Incident Commander three days before the exercise, and Accountability lead Suzanne Anglewicz developed a plan of attack using the organizational framework they'd learned in their classes.

In addition to designating Medical and Logistics leads, they divided rescuers into 2-person teams, initially assigning four teams to each of their four buildings. More importantly, they designated one team each to act as the area commander for the rescue efforts in and around their building, in some measure decentralizing command functions to let them focus on the bigger picture.

CERTs prepare in the staging area. Photo: Joe Loong
 Saturday morning, the command team tapped CERT Jamie DeMonaco to fill the Assistant IC role, then used the critical time before the start of the exercise to communicate the strategy and organize the CERTs into each of the required functions for the rescue effort.

CERTs Deploy
Once in action, CERTs rapidly went to work, deploying their organization and executing their tasks. CERT rescuers had to use the skills they learned to survey the scene, conduct a safe building search, rapidly triage and treat victims in the field, transport injured survivors to the Medical area, and provide care until additional resources arrived.

CERTs enter the grounds at the start of the exercise and start to deploy. Photo: © 2014 Daniel Liebman, All Rights Reserved

Several CERTs commented on how the state of the wrecked buildings at the former Lorton Juvenile Detention Center truly added to the realism and the stress of the exercise. Rescuer John Hanchulak noted that CERTs had to be mindful at all times of the potential hazards in the buildings, and exercise controllers reinforced that point by keeping an eye out for rescuers not properly using their Personal Protective Equipment.

CERTs transport a victim actor from a wrecked building. Photo: Joe Loong

Adding to stress levels were the victim actors, made up with moulage (realistic wound makeup), and who added stress and confusion to the exercise by acting out their injuries and responding realistically -- and sometimes uncooperatively -- to commands.

Left: Victim actor getting moulage (wound makeup) applied. Right: Victim actor in the field with a simulated cheek laceration. Photo: © 2014 Daniel Liebman, All Rights Reserved

Reactions to "Injections"
During any exercise, challenges will appear: Communications problems  arise, bottlenecks form, resources get constrained, and more. Building Commander Chris Kocsis noted that one of his greatest challenges was keeping track of victims. IC Pratten was sometimes frustrated by resource limitations and communications gaps with Building Commanders. Assistant IC Jamie DeMonaco noted a few teams were "lost," out of communication for a while. Rescue teams occasionally mis-tagged victims.

CERT rescuers treat "bulldozer driver" Jeffrey Katz for a medical emergency.
However CERTs continued to adapt and overcome problems, doing so well that Exercise Controller Mike Forgy had to inject several additional challenges into the exercise: An unexpected building to survey, a simulated fire breaking out, and a medical emergency suffered by a distant bulldozer driver (played by Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Volunteer Coordinator Jeffrey Katz).

Transfer of Command
Towards the end of the exercise, members of the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department arrived to take command. CERT command staff provided an accurate accounting of actions taken and status of patients rescued, then handed off command to the professional first responders.

The CERT IC transfers command scene to arriving Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department personnel. Photo: Carlos Santiso
Teen CERTs
Of particular note were the Teen CERTs from Class 78, from the Falls Church High School Academy. The students take CERT training as part of their studies in the Fire and Emergency Medical Sciences to prepare them for careers in the emergency services.

Some of the Teen CERTs from the Falls Church High School Academy. L-R: Alexa Chavera, Alex Bottlick, Joey Barbaris, Matt Whalen, Tommy Veatch. Photo: Joe Loong
Since the Academy students also get firefighting and EMT training, the CERT program complements their skills. Several noted they especially enjoyed the search and rescue training, which they got to use when they were were integrated into rescue teams, working alongside CERTs with whom they hadn't previously met.

No matter what their age or physical ability, the skill demonstrated by the graduating CERTs showed that trained CERTs with a plan are able to "cheat" and beat disasters.

For more photos from the exercise, visit the Fairfax County CERT Facebook page. For information about upcoming activities and training opportunities with Fairfax County CERT, visit

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Children's Disaster Services Workshop, March 28-29, 2014

The Virginia chapter of VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster) passes along this unique training opportunity starting this Friday, March 28:

Children's Disaster Services is an organization that screens and trains volunteers who set up child care centers in shelters and disaster assistance centers across the country.

A Children's Disaster Services volunteer works with a child after the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. Photo: CDS on Facebook
By caring for children, CDS volunteers ease the burden of parents, and use toys, art, play, and other techniques to help children start to recover after a disaster.

CDS volunteers helps a child paint after Tropical Storm Issac in 2012. Photo: CDS on Facebook

The Arlington, Virginia workshop starts Friday, March 28, running overnight through Saturday, March 29, at Marymount University in Arlington:

Marymount University
1000 N. Glebe Rd.
Arlington, VA 22207

The registration fee is $55, and participants (over the age of 18) should bring a sleeping bag and personal items, because the 27-hour workshop includes an overnight stay in a simulated shelter.

In addition, workshop participants will get hands-on training on how to set up a Children's Disaster Service Center, and how to provide a calm, safe, and reassuring environment after a disaster. (See more details about the workshops.)

To register and to get additional contact information, visit:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

When Was the Last Time You Were in a CERT Exercise? Join Us March 22nd!

Calling all Fairfax County CERTs! On Saturday, March 22nd, our current crop of CERT students will have their final graduation exercise at the training grounds of the lovely former Lorton Juvenile Detention Facility.

As a trained CERT, there are three ways you can participate. To get more details and to claim your spot, please email Kevin at

1. Be a Player! Did you know CERTs from previous classes can be rescuers in the graduation exercises? (I didn't, until this week.) If it's been a while since you last strapped on your CERT gear, take this chance to fulfill your training requirement and practice your triage, search and rescue, disaster medical skills, and more in a realistic, simulated disaster environment.

CERT students from class 73 transport a patient during their graduation exercise.
Not only do you get to work on your skills, but your participation also gives the student CERTs practice working with unfamiliar people.

To be a rescuer, you'll need your CERT gear, plus long pants and closed-toe shoes. Also, bringing a victim actor is appreciated.

2. Help Run the Exercise: A smooth-running exercise needs a lot of help behind the scenes.

CERT controllers and support staff get briefed before a final exercise.
Roles for CERTs include:
  • Moulage: If you've had moulage training, you can help give the victim actors the wound makeup that adds to the realism of the drill. Moulage personnel arrive need to arrive early, and can either check out after the makeup is done, or help in other ways (as player, helper, or even as a victim.)
  • Division Controllers: During the exercise, division controllers help mark off "no-go" areas, place victim actors, keep headcounts, and watch CERT students and actors during the exercise to make sure that they maintain safety all times.
  • Logistics: Logistics personnel support the exercise controller to do everything else: deliver supplies, help set up, and more. (There may be other roles, too, like helping with evaluations.)
3. Be a Victim Actor: As always, CERTs, family members, friends, minors with parental permission, those looking for community service credits, and all others are welcome to participate as victims.

Victim actors will need to arrive at the Lorton site around 7AM; wear clothes you don't mind messing up, and make sure you have long pants and closed-toe shoes. You'll get made up with moulage (wound makeup), and given symptoms to act out:

Examples of different types of moulage used by victim actors in an exercise.
Afterwards, lunch will be served, and victim actors will be released by about 1:30pm.

Whether you participate as rescuer, helper, or actor, being part of a CERT exercise is a lot of fun. For more info and to reserve your spot as a rescuer, helper, or victim actor, email Kevin at