Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shadowing CERTs: Class 5: Safety, Hazards, Terrorism, & Disaster Psychology

[Previously, on Shadowing CERTs: The students of Fairfax County CERT Classes 85 and 86 finished their modules on Disaster Medical Operations, and will soon learn about the darker side of disaster response. Meanwhile, the drills keep building in complexity...]

The scenario that greets our students: A severe storm has hit the area, and CERTs have been deployed to a two-building complex which includes a children's day care center. Their task: Set up a Command Post, assess the scene, begin rescue operations, and treat survivors until responders can arrive.

Class 85 CERTs set up their Command Post on a picnic table. All photos: Joe Loong

This drill marks the CERTs' first return to Burn Building A since their introduction to CERT command structure in Week Two, and it becomes their primary focus since a size-up of the scene determines that the other structure is too unsafe to enter. (A key part of CERT training is maintaining the safety of rescuers, since a CERT who becomes injured or trapped just adds to the problem.)

The first team of CERT searchers to enter the target building uses duct tape to mark it with standard urban search and rescue markings.

Guided by the light of their headlamps and flashlights, CERTs begin searching the structure. The Incident Commander has given each Rescue team a specific assignment, such as searching for survivors in a top-down or bottom-up pattern (starting at the top floor and working their way down, or vice versa), or searching a specific floor.

CERTs use their duct tape and black Sharpie markers to create triage tags and information recording dashboards.

Gingerbread People Are Just Like You and Me (Sort of)

Once again, the survivors in this drill are plywood "gingerbread" people who are easy to carry, but don't respond when called and can't give rescuers any useful information (other than their own symptoms written on a card).

A CERT rescue team walks a green-tagged (walking wounded) survivor to the Medical area.

However, gingerbreads, much like their human counterparts, are often found in strange and inconvenient locations, and can be hard to spot in the dark.

CERTs tend to a simulated survivor in a crawl space.

And despite their light weight, gingerbread survivors also require four to six rescuers to lift and carry them out.

CERT rescuers carry a gingerbread survivor to Medical.

And just like people, gingerbreads require ongoing assessment and care at the Medical area:

A CERT Medical team member performs a head-to-toe assessment on a red-tagged gingerbread survivor.

A Note on Logistics

Before we wrap up coverage of this drill, here's a word about Logistics. Despite UPS advertising campaigns, it can be easy to overlook the role of Logistics in operations. After all, the Rescue and Medical personnel are doing the camera-ready tasks, treating survivors in the field and carrying them to safety, or doing appropriately important-looking things to injured people in Medical.

Meanwhile, Logistics team members are doing not-so-glamorous-looking things like gathering supplies and moving them around.

Logistics team CERTs build and maintain a supply cache.

However, any disaster responder will tell you that without Logistics, you can't get anything done. Without drinking water, sanitation, cribbing material, tools, blankets, medical supplies, and everything else you need to run a rescue operation and keep people alive, your efforts to help survivors will be severely hampered. So here's to Logistics and everything they do.

Managing Threats, Seen and Unseen

After the drill and debrief, the CERT students returned to the classroom to learn about the dangers CERTs need to be prepared for, featuring a hefty dose of first-hand experience from instructor Mike Forgy. Rescuers in the field may face hazards ranging from loose dogs to drug labs, not to mention the threats of terrorism... including secondary attacks that specifically target first responders.

CERT training keeps rescuer safety paramount at all times, so CERTs learn to be aware of their surroundings, and to avoid the threats they can't mitigate. However, one threat that they may face is invisible, and CERTs need to be prepared for the stress and emotional impact of being on a disaster scene, and working with survivors who have been injured, or seen their loved ones injured or killed.

In addition to providing guidelines for dealing with traumatized survivors, CERTs were told how to recognize and deal with incident stress among themselves and their teammates. Instructor Forgy likened the protective steps against disaster trauma to those taken against radiation: Limit exposure time, increase distance, and add shielding. Much of this can be accomplished by rotating teams, providing rest breaks, and taking care to maintain the physiological needs of rescuers.

In the next class, CERTs will learn how to extract entrapped victims using wood and two-thousand-year-old principles, and face their most complex drill to date.

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Shadowing CERTs: Class 4, Disaster Medical Operations 2

[Previously, on Shadowing CERTs: After a major disaster, triaging and treating survivors in the field is only the first step. Victims need to be cared for at Medical until they can be evacuated for more comprehensive care. The students of Fairfax County CERT's Classes 85 and 86 learn what it takes to maintain the patients under their care.]

CERTs of Class 85 set up Command and Accountability as they prepare to search the High Bay. All photos: Joe Loong

Like last week, the second class in Disaster Medical Operations begins with a drill in the darkened High Bay. The CERTs are more familiar with the layout (including the multi-story "garden apartment"), but each drill is getting more complex, and the students are being evaluated on how well they remember, integrate, and apply the skills they've learned to date.

Faced once again with plywood dummies ("gingerbreads") and human victim actors, CERT rescuers must rapidly assess, triage, tag, and treat the victims, focusing on stopping the three killers they've been trained to deal with (obstructed airway, excessive bleeding, and shock).

CERT rescuers find Instructor Rich Hall, who plays a victim actor with a simulated arm injury.

Mixing human actors with gingerbreads gives CERTs an additional challenge. Students tend to prioritize human victim actors (especially ones who moan and cry out) over plywood ones, causing them to bypass their methodical searches and spend more time treating less-severe injuries.

CERTs gather bandaging supplies at a Logistics cache.

Instructors in this phase of the drill aren't just guiding students on what to do, but are advising them what not to do. During the initial search, the goal of rescuers is to spend no more than 30 seconds on each patient, which means stopping life threats, and saving non-life-threatening injuries (including nasty-looking wounds like compound fractures) for later care.

Instructor Rich Hall demonstrates how to perform a head-to-toe assessment.

After the drill, CERTs head back to the classroom to learn what that "later" care at Medical involves. CERTs learn that setting up a Medical area means more than just colored tarps and sunshades. In an actual disaster, they may need to care for survivors on-site for up to three days, so maintaining hygiene and sanitation becomes critical. CERTs learn several methods for purifying water, as well as how to use a 10:1 mixture of water and bleach to make disinfecting solution.

At Medical, CERTs must continue to monitor patients for life threats, as well as perform a head-to-toe assessment to check for other injuries. They learn how to treat injuries ranging from burns and fractures to hypothermia. CERTs learn the importance of regularly re-assessing patients for changes in status. And they practice skills like performing head-to-toe assessments, dressing wounds, and splinting limbs.

In their next class, CERTs will learn how to watch out for hazards of a different sort... including unseen ones that affect both victims and rescuers.

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shadowing CERTs, Class 3: Disaster Medical Operations 1

[Previously, on Shadowing CERTs: The students of Fairfax County CERT Classes 85 and 86 have gotten an Introduction to CERT and instruction in Disaster Management. In their third week, things are about to get a lot more hands on...]

Starting this week, Fairfax County CERT students are expected to arrive wearing their full CERT gear, because class starts with a drill to test what they've learned to date about managing disasters.

When they get to the darkened High Bay, CERTs must quickly size up the scene, set up Command and Accountability functions, send out Logistics teams to gather materials, establish a Medical area, and begin Rescue operations, all by flashlight. (We'll have pictures of a High Bay drill in the Week 4 writeup.)

Throughout the process, instructors coach the students, reminding them to properly tag the building before entering and helping them conduct a top-down or bottom-up search.

In this drill, the victims are plywood "gingerbread" cutouts, as well as a few human instructors who arrive at Medical for treatment. (CERTs will learn patient lifts and classes in a later class.)

Instructor Rich Hall leads class on Disaster Medical Operations. All photos by Joe Loong

After a debrief, CERTs head back to the classroom for lectures and skill drills led by instructor Rich Hall, who leads off by teaching CERTs to identify themselves and ask patients for permission before beginning treatment (noting that consent is implied when dealing with unconscious victims).

CERT responders learn that their primary goal during rescue operations is to rapidly triage, tag, and treat life-threatening injuries, spending no more than 30 seconds per victim. They learn the triage categories of Red (Immediate), Yellow (Delayed), Green (Minor), and Black (Expectant/Dead). And they learn simple methods to evaluate victims, like the RPM test, which checks for Respiration, Perfusion (an indicator of effective circulation), and Mental Status.

Duct tape "desktops" that CERTs use to record the number, triage status, and location of victims.

Students also learn how to use their duct tape and Sharpie markers to make victim tags and a recording desktop that they'll later turn in to Command.

Rich demonstrates the head-tilt, chin-lift method to open an airway.

For CERT rescuers in the field, patient treatment consists of stopping the "three killers" by opening airways, stopping major bleeding (as well as a new addition this year, treating sucking chest wounds), and treating for shock.

They learn just what constitutes major bleeding (it doesn't take a lot of blood to make a big mess), and learn how do use different types of materials ranging from cravats and triangular bandages, to duct tape and torn sheets, to apply a proper (and tight) pressure dressing to stop major bleeding. And they get an introduction on the use of occlusive dressings to treat sucking chest wound, as well as tourniquets (CERTs can get further instruction in both techniques in a separate class offering.)

Class 86 CERTs practice assessing patients and treating them to stop the "three killers" by opening airways, stopping major bleeding, and treating for shock.
During the skill drills, CERTs get a chance to be both rescuers and victims. Drills begin with treatment; then triage and treatment; then triage, treatment, and tagging. Each drill reinforces and then builds on the skills they practiced in the previous drill.

The final hallway drill presents CERTs a large number of casualties, who they must rapidly triage, tag, and treat.

In the evening's final drill, students are faced with a number of victims, either in the High Bay or lined up in a hallway, and must quickly triage, tag, and treat victims, all under the watchful eye of instructors.

CERT rescuers work in teams; one person assesses the victim, and the other prepares the tag and records their information.

In subsequent weeks, the students of CERT Classes 85 and 86 will build on this knowledge, as the drills (and what they're expected to do in them) get more complex.

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Shadowing CERTs: Class 2, Disaster Management

[Editor's Note: I'm in training to become a CERT Volunteer Instructor, so I've been observing Fairfax County CERT's Fall classes at the Fire & Rescue Academy (Classes 85 and 86). I planned on posting class recaps every week, but since we're now in week six of seven and I've only posted once, I'm clearly behind schedule. I'm going to try to get caught up in time for the classes' Nov. 15 final graduation exercise.]

The first week of CERT training is largely about why CERT does what it does. In the second class, Disaster Management, the students of CERT Classes 85 and 86 really started getting into the how's: How CERTs organize and respond to a disaster.

Instructor Mike Forgy teaches the students of Class 86 the finer points of CERT organization. All photos: Joe Loong
During the opening lecture, instructors threw out a slew of acronyms, mnemonics, and rules of thumb to help CERTs orient themselves during a disaster response, including:
  • Use the CALMeR command structure: Command, Accountability, Logistics, Medical, Rescue
  • Rescuers should be SAFE: Survey scene; Affix tags; Fix life; Extricate victims
  • Determine priorities for rescue by focusing on "Worst hurt, easiest to get out."
CERTs also learned that a good set of orders has both geographic and functional components: "Team 2, I need you to go to Building 2, Floor 2 [a specific place] and conduct a search and report back [a specific action]."

Then, the CERT students were told to gear up and head outside for a round-robin of stations that demonstrated the functions of Command, Accountability, Logistics, Medical, and Rescue.

Lead Instructor Steve Willey receives a scene size-up report at the Command station.

For Command and Accountability, CERTs got an overview of the Command function. They were taught how to pick a safe site for their Command Post, and how to begin setting up the other departments and their leaders. They learned that the CERT organization is designed to keep a commander's span of control to no more 7 persons, with the optimum being 3-5. And they learned the importance of maintaining Accountability for all team members: Being able to know who is doing what at any given time.

Volunteer Instructor Jonathan Kiell shows Class 85 CERTs the materials gathered at a Logistics cache.
At the Logistics station, CERTs learned how to keep the response supplied with vital materials, ranging from materials for lifting, cribbing, and building stretchers for the Rescue teams, to tarps, water, bandages, and shelter for the Medical area. CERTs were encouraged to use their resourcefulness to obtain materials, but cautioned to stay within legal and ethical boundaries.

At the Medical station, CERT Jim McPheeters uses the contents of his CERT back to show students how to provision a Medical area.
CERTs learned how to set up and operate a Medical area using only the materials in their packs and items supplied by Logistics. A proper Medical area has safe, distinct areas for the treatment of each category of triaged patients, as well as access control and a check-in process so that incoming patients aren't lost in the chaos.

CERTs of Class 85 go through the burn building as they watch a CERT Rescue team perform a building search.
For the Rescue station, CERTs were led through the burn building in a sample floor search, where students learned the importance of the buddy system and maintaining situational awareness. They also learned how to do a proper interior search -- keeping the same hand on a wall and following it around until you get back to the entrance, while keeping track of potential hazards, victims, entrances, and exits.

In CERT training, each class builds on what the students learned the previous classes, and lays the groundwork for the next. In the second class, CERTs began to learn how to function while wearing their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and got a view of what a disaster response looks like. Their training will get much more hands-on in the following weeks.

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Victim Actors Needed: CERT Final Exercise, Saturday, November 15

We need victim actors for the upcoming Fairfax County CERT graduation final exercise!

Victim actors show off their wound makeup from the Spring 2014 final exercise. All photos: Joe Loong.

Victims actors play an important role in CERT training. Wearing realistic wound makeup and role-playing as disaster survivors, victim actors help CERT responders practice their skills on real, live human beings in a realistic, stressful, simulated mass casualty incident.

Who Can Be a Victim? Anyone 15 years of age or older. All physical abilities are welcome. Perfect for drama classes, students needing community service hours, retired persons, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and anyone interested in disasters.

When: Saturday, November 15, 2014, from around 7AM-2PM

Where: The Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Lorton Training Site, located at the former Lorton Juvenile Detention Center in Lorton, Virginia.

Victim Actor Requirements: 
  • 15 years of age or older
  • Must wear closed-toe shoes (no flip-flops, Crocs, sandals, etc) 
  • Should dress in clothes appropriate for the weather and that you don't mind messing up with fake blood, etc. 
  • Will need to sign a waiver 
We will make you up in moulage (simulated wound makeup) and give you symptoms to role-play. When the exercise is over, we'll feed you lunch. 
To Sign Up: Please send email to

Info for Victim Actors

About the Lorton Training Site

The Lorton Training Site is located at the former Lorton Juvenile Detention Center (JDC), part of the Lorton prison complex that closed in 2001.

While parts of the adult prison have been transformed into an art center, the JDC site has been beaten up for years by the elements and the first responders who train there, making it the perfect place for a disaster simulation.

Views of the former Lorton Juvenile Detention Center.

Moulage (Wound Makeup)

After checking in, victim actors will be given a set of injuries that they'll get to role-play, with moulage (wound makeup) to match. Simulated injuries can range from mild cuts and bruises, to major injuries like severe lacerations, compound fractures, impalements, and even amputations! (If you don't want to get too messy, you can request lighter injuries... although many folks feel that getting gory fake injuries is part of the fun!)

Victim actors sport a variety of simulated injuries that rescuers will have to treat.

Our moulage team will use makeup, fake blood, latex and silicone appliances, and props to help you get into character and give a convincing performance.

You'll also get some symptoms to act out. The rest is up to you: You can portray a stoic survivor, or you can role-play someone who's dazed, distraught, disoriented, or in shock. Check out this victim actor's performance:

What Happens Next...

After a safety briefing, you'll be moved into position on the training site. The exercise will begin... but the disaster area has multiple buildings over a wide area, and search and rescue teams will first need to find you!

While you wait, exercise controllers will make sure you stay warm and hydrated, and they'll tell you when rescuers get within hearing distance, so you'll know when to start acting and crying for help (if your simulated injuries allow you to cry for help, of course).

A victim actor with a simulated hand amputation waits for CERT rescue teams to find him.

If they follow their training, CERT rescuers will find you, assess your condition, and tag you according to the severity of your simulated injuries... all under the watchful eye of exercise controllers and evaluators.

CERT rescuers splint a simulated leg injury.

You'll receive some quick treatment in the field. If you have minor simulated injuries, you may even be able to walk out with your CERT rescuers. Otherwise, you may have to wait for rescuers to transport you to the medical area for more comprehensive care.

A CERT rescue team carries a victim actor out of a building and to the medical area.

After the end of the exercise is called, we'll serve lunch, and you'll get to swap stories with CERT rescuers, staffers, and your fellow victim actors.

Sound like fun? It is, and it's a unique way to spend a Saturday morning!

Sign Up to Be a Victim Actor Now by emailing

Monday, October 13, 2014

Looking in on Fairfax County CERT Class 87 in McLean

Last week, Jeffrey Katz, Volunteer Liaison with Fairfax County Fire & Rescue, noted that we hit a milestone, with over 100 people currently in training to become Fairfax County CERTs.

Hitting 100 was only possible because we don't just train CERTs at the Fire and Rescue Academy; instructors train CERTs at locations throughout Fairfax County. Currently, we've got Classes 85 and 86 being held at the Fire Academy, Class 87 in McLean, and Class 88 in Burke. By providing CERT classes where people live, we help increase awareness of CERT and make it easier for people all over the county to take CERT training.

(If your community group can get a minimum of 12 people to commit to CERT training, we'll send instructors to your location, free! If you're interested, please email for more info.)

Peeking in on Class 87

I got the chance to help out with the second class of Fairfax County CERT Class 87, most of whose members heard about the training through the McLean Citizen Association.

For seven weeks, CERT 87 is meeting at the Old Firehouse Teen Center in McLean. As the name suggests, it's a former firehouse in the heart of McLean that's been converted into a teen center, complete with murals, a disco ball, and a checkerboard dance floor.

Instructor Mike Forgy teaches CERT students in front of Saturn. All photos: Joe Loong

Although the decor is a little funky, the curriculum is pure CERT. On this night, students were learning about Disaster Management and the CERT way of doing things, including determining rescue priorities; the CALMeR method of organization (Command, Accountability, Logistics, Medical, Rescue); and the SAFE priorities for rescue (Survey scene, Attach tags, Fix life-threats, Extricate victims).

After the lecture, CERT students geared up and went through a round-robin of demonstrations for each of the CALMeR functions, to learn more about the role each part plays in incident response.

I was demonstrating the functions of Rescue, starting with showing how to properly mark a building, then leading the students on a lap of the teen center, showing safe search techniques and pointing out potential hazards they might face in a disaster situation.

Although it's different from being in a burn building at the Fire Academy, training in the community shows students the realism of responding to disasters in real places where real people live, work, and play.

Snapshots of Class 87 Members

I asked a few of the members of Class 87 why they were taking CERT training. Here are their responses:

Name: Darren Ewing

Occupation: Financial Advisor

Reason for Taking CERT Training: Darren, who's active with the McLean Citizens Association, has deep roots in Fairfax County and wants to be able to help and give back to the community, and do something for the greater good.
Name: Maria Booth

Occupation: Technical Recruiter

Reason for Taking CERT Training: Maria, taking the class along with her husband, heard about the class through the McLean Community Center's newsletter, and thought that CERT training would give her good information to help her family and neighbors in case of emergency.

Name: Sam Shanker (left) and Thomas Shanker (right)

Occupation: College student and news editor, respectively.

Reason for Taking CERT Training: Sam, a student at Middlebury College, had CERT training recommended to him, and thought it would be something good to do for the community. His father Thomas, an editor with the New York Times, is active in the community and wanted to take the CERT training to increase the safety of the community.

Remember, if your community group can get a minimum of 12 people to commit to CERT training, we'll send instructors to your location, free! If you're interested, please email  for more info.

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