Thursday, July 17, 2014

Welcome, New CERTs of Fairfax County CERT Class 83

On June 23, the students of Fairfax County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Class 83 faced a scenario replicating what had happened in real life barely a week before: Severe thunderstorm activity causing heavy building damage, downed trees, and widespread power outages throughout the county.

In this graduation exercise, CERTs were called to the scene of two heavily damaged apartment buildings, and challenged to apply the disaster response knowledge and skills they'd learned over the past seven weeks.

However, first they had to get through fire suppression training.

Putting Out Fires
Using a propane-fueled fire simulator as their target, teams of two CERTs, using the P.A.S.S. technique they learned in class (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep), used fire extinguishers to attack a blaze controlled by Instructor Brian Talbott.

CERT took turns performing both roles on a fire suppression team: extinguisher operator and safety lookout. Photo: Joe Loong

Preparations and Moulage
Meanwhile, as CERTs were extinguishing fires, CERT staffers and instructors were busy setting up the target buildings and applying moulage (realistic wound makeup) to the victim actors.

CERT staffers consult after preparing the fire suppression station and placing simulated hazards around the scene. Building A, the primary target for the exercise, is background left. Photo: Carlos Santiso
CERT Laura and son Etienne show that being a victim actor is a family affair, as Moulage Lead Susy applies wound makeup to simulate burns. Photo: Joe Loong
Victim actors show off their moulage, or wound makeup, simulating a variety of burns, lacerations, and impalements. Photo: Joe Loong

Neighboring Response
One of the perks of the Fairfax County CERT program is that the training usually occurs at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy -- the same place where the county's first responders train. That was particularly evident this night, as a training exercise took place in an adjacent building, complete with smoke, flashing fire engine lights, and firefighters in full turnout gear.

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue responders train in an adjacent building at the same time as the CERT exercise. Photo: Carlos Santiso

Challenging the Darkness
Unlike other recent CERT final exercises, Class 83's took place at night, and the darkness provided an extra challenge to CERTs as they mounted their response to the simulated disaster.

By the light of their headlamps, CERT rescuers rapidly assess and treat a victim actor. Photo: Joe Loong
In addition, several victim actors were positioned in awkward and constrained spaces at the tops and bottoms of staircases, giving CERT rescuers additional considerations to deal with as they worked to triage, treat, and transport them to the Medical area.  

A CERT rescue team encounters and begins assessing a victim actor at the foot of an outdoor staircase. Photo: Joe Loong

CERTs maneuver a victim actor in a tight spot at the top of a stairwell inside Building A. Photo: Joe Loong

Also, the victim actors, coached to provide realistically challenging portrayals of their injuries, increased the stress level for CERTs. Some victim actors, like Fran of CERT class 72, didn't require much coaching at all:

Incident Commander Greg Campion led CERT activities at the Command Post. A military officer, Greg decided to get involved with CERT after serving as an Interagency Fellow at FEMA.

When asked afterwards, Greg's assessment was that the CERTs performed well, and attributed much of their success to the quality and skill of each of the division leads.

 Incident Commander Greg and Accountability Lead Sarah (left side, table) coordinate CERT activities and issue instructions. Photo: Joe Loong
Accountability Lead Sarah Johnson was praised by command staff as being very capable and detail-oriented as she tracked the activities of CERT teams. At times, she worked with Greg as a de factor Deputy IC, a fact all the more notable considering she's a first-year college student who recently turned 18 years old, and didn't find out about her role in the exercise until that evening.

In addition, Lead Instructor Steve Willey was impressed by the ingenuity of the CERTs, who used a white sheet duct-taped to plywood backing as the command staff's status board (which he later took to use as an example to future CERT classes):

The status board used by Accountability to track the actions of rescue teams and other activities. Photo: Carlos Santiso.
Congratulations to all the new CERTs of Fairfax County CERT Class 83, and thanks to all the victim actors, staff, and others who participated in the exercise.

See more photos from the exercise on the Fairfax County CERT Facebook page:

The next training classes at the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy start in September -- click to see more details and register: CERT 85, Mondays beginning Sept. 8, and CERT 86, Wednesdays beginning Sept. 10.

Joe Loong, volunteer Social Media Specialist for Fairfax County CERT, is an editorial content and community engagement consultant. You can email him at

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fairfax County CERTs Get Shocking Demonstration From Dominion Power

[Editor's note: Tuesday night, severe thunderstorms swept through the D.C. area, knocking out power to over 92,000 homes. In CERT training, we learn what to do when we find hazards -- including downed electrical wires -- at a disaster scene: Don't mess with them! But what if it's your job? On July 1 (in a class also notably rescheduled due to thunderstorms), Dominion Power representatives gave a high voltage safety demonstration to CERTs. CERT Howard M. Kaye shares his recap.]

One CERT Member’s Review of Dominion Power’s High Voltage Safety Class
This was not what I was expecting. I suppose that’s good for CERT. I was expecting a classroom lecture with a PowerPoint show. We were never in a classroom: We signed in just inside the Fire Academy High Bay, then all went outside for the demonstration.

The Dominion demonstration trailer. It's hooked up to live current from the power grid. Photo: Carlos Santiso, Fairfax County CERT Class 73.
Three gentlemen from Dominion Power with a trailer full of high voltage lines, transformers, and fuses on power poles provided our class setting. They demonstrated the hazards that high voltage equipment can present in both everyday and emergency situations, as well as the safety gear that their personnel use to handle it.

A Cooking Demonstration?

They first began by demonstrating what 6,800 volts from a primary line will do to a hot dog:

Hot dog gets zapped. Video: Carlos Santiso.

The hot dog was well done with the first touch of the line, but they recooked it for any who may not have been paying attention. This was not a cooking class, so none of us were ready with relish and a bun. (How unprepared we were!)

Hot dog at the moment of ignition. Photo: Carlos Santiso.

A secondary line, we were told, would have less than 600 volts. That’s still plenty of power to zap people. Remember, that hot dog was just a metaphor for us. CERT members and non-CERT members alike could get cooked just as fast as that hot dog!

Panoramic view of the demonstration and CERT attendees. Photo: Jeffrey Katz, Volunteer Liaison, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.
After the hot dog, demonstrations simulated a tree on a power line, a car hitting a pole, a ladder hitting a live wire, and other hazards, like those of improperly wired generators… Questions were asked and answered.

Reporting Problems
We were asked to report power problems by calling 866.DOM.HELP (866-466-4357) and supplying an address or pole number. The pole number, which is specific to the equipment on that pole, can be found on the band that wraps around the pole, or on a label running downward.

Any of this information may be reported, BUT don’t get dangerously close to downed or damaged lines to read those pole numbers.

CERT attendees definitely paid attention to the demonstration. Photo: Jeffrey Katz.
In fact, the Virginia High Voltage Safety Act limits how close people may legally get to these high voltage hazards. From what I understood in this class, the legal distance of 20 feet is just not safe enough! Step potential could shock you from 40 or 50 feet. Storm or accident-damaged lines could pose a hazard from overhead lines coming down or underground lines exposed upward. You can not tell that a line is dead. Only the professionals can check and determine that a damaged line is safe.

Sometimes you can't even see the hazard in broad daylight. I mentioned a situation that happened in my neighborhood a week after Snowmegeddon. A plow finally came to clear our road and pushed so much snow that it moved one of those green boxes of high voltage equipment loose from a neighbor’s lawn. A week after the storm, we got our road cleared and a power outage, to boot! But we could not see any damaged equipment or exposed wires—all we saw was snow.

My takeaway is Stay Away!

Howard M. Kaye, Fairfax County CERT Class 8, is a professional photographer in Burke. You may contact him at