Thursday, February 19, 2015

The After-Action: Salute to Our Survivors

Whether they're screaming bloody murder inside a burn building at the Fire Academy, or silently shuffling around a former cell block at the Lorton training site, volunteer victim actors play a critical role in Fairfax County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Training.
Done up in realistic wound makeup (moulage), and coached on how to portray the symptoms they've been given, live victim actors allow us to kick up the realism factor in training classes and exercises.

There's a lot CERT rescuers can learn from a dummy, but nothing beats working with live human patients. At our November CERT graduation exercise, we had a record number of victim actors: 168, which included students, police cadets, active duty military, FEMA Corps volunteers, and many more folks from around the region.

The following photos highlight some of the victim actors from the November 15 exercise, and explain more about the important role they play in training CERTs to respond to major disasters where first responders are delayed.

Recruiting Victim Actors

The most important way we recruit victim actors is by requiring CERT students to bring at least two friends or family members to their graduation exercise. In addition, we try to get the word out to schools, emergency managers, drama clubs, volunteer groups, and any other organizations we can think of. Being a victim actor is great for people who are actors, preppers, interested in becoming first responders or health care providers, or want to fulfill a community service requirement.

Joseph Durand is a student who was recruited to be a victim actor by his grandfather, a CERT being tested. In addition to his visible (simulated) facial bruising, he also has been given a severe ankle injury. Since it's not life-threatening but makes him unable to walk, he should get a Yellow tag (Delayed treatment). [Photos by Joe Loong unless otherwise noted.]

In addition, during our regular training classes (especially for the Disaster Medical Operations modules), we reach out to previously trained CERTs. Many CERTs get a new perspective on search and rescue operations when they're on the other side of the headlamp, by seeing the things that other rescuers do -- and don't do -- well.

Cara Christopher is active with Volunteer Fairfax, which is how she learned about the exercise. She's sporting a simulated black eye, which in the scenario was caused by falling debris. Minor facial bruising, by itself, would earn her a Green tag for minor injuries. However, rescuers would still check her mental status by seeing if she could respond to simple commands, as well as make sure her breathing and perfusion were normal.

By working with human victim actors, rescuers can get feedback then they jostle a "broken" limb, blind a patient with their headlamp, or inadvertently step over them. They get to practice their simple triage tests -- checking breathing, doing nail bed tests, issuing simple commands -- to determine how patients should be tagged. And they learn a lot more applying a bandage or splint to a human than they do from a plywood "gingerbread" dummy. And of course, humans are a lot harder to lift and transport than dummies.

John Hawley, sporting a simulated head wound and asked to portray a survivor with a concussion, was recruited to be a victim actor by his wife, a CERT being tested today. Being unable to answer simple commands is a sign of altered mental status, so John should receive a Red tag (Immediate). Next to him is Lindy Bersack, who in addition to having some minor facial bruising, has an injured knee, which is probably a Yellow-tagged injury.

Another thing human actors do is talk back to rescuers. On the one hand, rescuers can get information about the situation and the patient's condition. On the other hand, especially during initial search and triage, rescuers have to learn have to stay focused and not get distracted by patients who are chatty, panicky, or screaming, as they try to triage, treat, and tag each patient in under 30 seconds.

Elaine Offley has several friends going through the graduation exercise today. She also has a simulated compound fracture of the lower right arm. If major bleeding or other injuries aren't present, her wound may be gruesome, but not life threatening, so she would get a Yellow tag (Delayed).

Using human victim actors also opens up practice for a new dimension: Using survivors as assistants. In a mass-casualty event, survivors who are uninjured or have minor injuries can assist rescuers in tasks like keeping pressure on a wound, carrying a stretcher, or even just watching over fellow survivors.

Chris Bryan's aunt is also a CERT in today's exercise. He's sporting some simulated burns on the face and neck, and the tag he'll get will depend on his responses to the simple RPM test the CERTs will give him (checking for Respiration, Perfusion, and Mental Status).

For the Fairfax County CERT program, the well-being of our participants is the number one priority. This means exercise staff are always checking to make sure our victim actors stay hydrated, protected from the elements as much as possible (admittedly, a challenge in really hot or really cold weather), and for our half-day exercises, fed.

When not portraying survivors to help out a friend taking the CERT class, Brian Perez and James Jennings are both currently serving active duty with the US Air Force. Here, they're staying warm as they wait in a cell for rescuers.

Beyond their personal safety, we want to make sure our victim actors understand what's going on, so they stay interested and gain insight on what happens during a disaster response. After all, we love repeat customers who have good things to say about CERT. Even better is when people try their hand at being victim actors, and are then motivated to sign up for the full CERT training class.

Waiting in this cell are Sammy, Rachel, and Rebecca. Sammy and Rebecca are with the Teen CERT program offered through Fairfax County's Falls Church Academy. They'll get the CERT certification as part of their Fire and Emergency Medical Services Program, where they'll receive other certifications that will be useful if they choose to become firefighters or EMTs.

This bunch is composed of students, staffers, and chaperones from the GW Community School in Springfield. This day, they've brought 32 participants, many of whom are veterans of previous CERT exercises at Lorton and the Fire & Rescue Academy.

Moulage: Gory or Non-Gory?

Florita Wesley shows off her simulated injury: A cheek impaled by flying glass. Although her wound looks nasty, by itself, it wouldn't be considered life-threatening. If she's still able to walk, she'd be a Green tag (Minor, or Walking Wounded.) Otherwise, she'd get a Yellow tag (Delayed). Florita learned about the exercise through a newsletter from the Office of Emergency Management, and volunteered because she wanted to do something different.

Victim actors have a voice in the type of fake wounds they'd like. If they don't want fake blood or particularly gruesome injuries, they can get light, or even no makeup. However, more often than not, people want to get into the role with something really juicy, like an impalement, amputation, or dangling eyeball. While we try to accommodate people's requests, the number and severity of simulated injuries is determined by the needs of the training scenario. (So a CERT training exercise probably isn't going to look like an attack scene from The Walking Dead.)

Paul (sporting a head-mounted GoPro camera) is also one of the GW Community School bunch. He's been given some minor scrapes, which by themselves would earn him a Green tag (Minor, or walking wounded.) Paul is acting in the exercise to fulfill a community service requirement, as well as to do something interesting.

Jackie Miller, sporting a simulated head injury, is mom to one of the CERT students trying to graduate. It was also her birthday -- happy belated birthday, and hope you were able to warm up and have a real celebration!

Michael's uncle is also a CERT in today's class. In addition to helping out as a victim actor, Michael hopes to incorporate what he's learning today into a project on human anatomy and physiology.


More About FEMA Corps

Joey Ditirro, Patrick Byrne, and Mikayla McCoy are some of the dozens of FEMA Corps members who showed up and helped with our record-setting victim actor numbers.

One of the reasons why this exercise broke the victim actor participation record is that we were joined by a few dozen FEMA Corps participants. I asked FEMA Corps Team Leader Hannah Bohn to tell us a little bit more about FEMA Corps and her thoughts about the CERT exercise:
"FEMA Corps is a partnership between AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) and FEMA. Corps members who are 18-24 years old commit to 10 months of disaster-related service projects that are sponsored by FEMA. The teams that participated in the full-scale exercise are all from the Southern Region Campus located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but we are all currently stationed in the National Capital Region (most teams are at FEMA headquarters in D.C., others are in Winchester, VA). Teams do a variety of projects: developing training programs, conducting audits, taking registration/case status update calls from survivors, etc.

A significant part of our service year is participating in independent service projects (ISPs) outside of our daily work. We need at least 10 hours of Stafford Act-related ISPs in order to graduate from the program. Some of our teams in the NCR learned of the exercise and spread the word to other teams because being actors in a full-scale exercise is directly related to the Stafford Act.

We were very impressed by the CERT students. Those who "rescued" us from the "disaster" were professional and supportive. There were many "victims," but it seemed like their rescue and medical attention were well organized. It was fun to play the victim! A chilly day, certainly, but we enjoyed being able to help out!"

A group shot of the FEMA Corps members who participated in the exercise. Photo: Jeffrey Katz.

Once again, we are very grateful for FEMA Corps and all our volunteer victim actors, and for the important role they play in providing realistic and useful training for our CERT students. Thanks so much for participating, and we hope to see you again soon!

Do You Want to Be a Survivor?

If you're interested in being a victim actor at one of our upcoming final graduation exercises at the former Juvenile Detention Center in Lorton (tentatively scheduled for June and October/November 2015), please email Victim Actor Coordinator Kevin at

For other victim actor opportunities, including those at the Fire Academy and at locations throughout the Fairfax County, email Training Coordinator James at

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

CERTs Getting Together at Local CERT Team Networking Meetings

Disaster responders say, "You don't want to be exchanging business cards during a disaster." With that in mind, the Fairfax County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Local CERT Teams Working Group has set up a series of networking sessions around the county, so that folks interested in leading or joining a local CERT team can meet the other interested CERTS in their area.

Local CERT Teams Working Group member Jonathan Kiell addresses gathered CERTs.

The first networking session happened last week, where about 30 current and prospective CERTs from the Herndon/Reston area met at the Reston Library, diving deeper into the Local Teams concept and getting to know some of their fellow CERTs... many of whom lived just around the corner from each other without even knowing it.

The idea behind the Local CERT Teams program is simple: CERTs who live close to each other form up into teams that meet, talk, and train together. That way, the CERTs get to know and work with each other before a disaster, and can come together in the event of a major emergency where professional responders are delayed.

At the meeting, maps and rosters showed active and interested CERTs across Fairfax County.

Not surprisingly, the majority of people who've expressed interest in becoming active with a Local CERT Team are recent CERT graduates, or have otherwise remained active with CERT. One of the goals of the Local CERT Teams initiative is to provide a way for all CERTs to remain engaged with the program by participating in activities right in their own neighborhoods. These might include regular meetings; skills workshops and drills; training from visiting instructors; and outreach events designed to get neighbors interested in becoming CERTs themselves.

Reston-area CERTs circle up to talk about Local Teaming opportunities.

Local CERT Teams can be organized around boundaries like supervisory districts, police and fire stations, and homeowner's associations. A great starting point is ZIP code, and at this first Local Team networking meeting, participants broke out into Reston- and Herndon-area ZIP codes to talk about next steps for teams in specific areas.

(It's also important to note that CERTs in local teams should get to know their neighboring teams. There's nothing preventing you from joining multiple teams, especially if your home straddles two team areas, or if you live and work in two separate ones.)

Next Steps

Now that they've been introduced, CERTs who want to form or join Local CERT teams will meet to figure out ways to continue the momentum, collaborate, and have followup meetings to develop their teams.

The next Local CERT Team networking session is Thursday, February 19, from 7PM to 9PM at the Burke Centre Library (Meeting Room 116K), 5935 Freds Oak Road, Burke, VA. (Recommended for people in the following ZIP codes: 20120, 20121, 20124, 20151, 2201, 22030, 22032, and 22039... though CERTs from any area who wish to learn more about Local CERT Teams are welcome.)

After that, the next two networking sessions are:
  • Monday, March 2, 6:30PM to 9PM at the Kingstowne Library, 6500 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria, VA.

    (Recommended for people in ZIP codes: 22060, 22079, 22150, 22152, 22153, 22303, 22306, 22307, 22308, 22309, 22310, and 22315)

  • Tuesday, March 3, 6:30PM to 9PM at the Patrick Henry Library, 101 Maple Ave. East, Vienna, VA.

    (Recommended for people in ZIP codes: 22003, 22027, 22031, 22037, 22041, 22042, 22043, 22044, 22046, 22101, 22102, 22151, and 22180)
If you have questions about Local CERT Teams, or have not yet expressed your interest in joining or starting one in your area, please send an email to

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Shadowing CERTs: The Big Test

[Previously on Shadowing CERTs: After seven weeks of training, the students of Fairfax County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Classes 85 and 86 prepare to face their greatest challenge -- a full-scale graduation exercise, complete with live victim actors and authentically wrecked buildings. Are they up to the task?]

Disasters don't happen on nice days.

November 15 is a cold, cold Saturday morning at Virginia Task Force One's disaster training center at the former Lorton Reformatory Juvenile Correctional Facility. Nearly 70 Fairfax County CERT students from Classes 85 and 86 (and a few from 88) are in the staging area, getting ready to put to the test the skills and knowledge they've learned in seven weeks of classroom and hands-on training.

CERTs in the staging area get briefed by Incident Commander Brad Smith. All photos (unless noted): Joe Loong

Those seven weeks of CERT training have given these regular people skills to safely assist their neighbors after a major disaster, doing the most good for the most people until help arrives. Skills like how to:
  • Set up a command structure for a disaster response
  • Safely survey a disaster scene
  • Perform light search and rescue operations
  • Extract survivors from moderately damaged buildings
  • Extinguish small fires
  • Rapidly triage, treat, and transport survivors for further care
  • Keep track of rescue efforts and survivors so they can transfer command to arriving Fire & Rescue personnel

The Accountability section uses a sheet taped to the side of a truck to organize teams before deployment.

While the CERTs have been through a few smaller training exercises at the Fire & Rescue Academy, the Lorton exercise is where they must put it all together... in an unfamiliar, authentically wrecked disaster scene, filled with a record-breaking 170 live, vocal victim actors.

Victim actors with wound makeup simulating an amputated hand, impalement by flying glass, and impalement by wood.

Just like the CERTs, the victim actors are volunteers drawn from all walks of life. (We'll take a closer look at them in an upcoming post.) Today, they're portraying survivors of a hurricane-ravaged apartment complex, and have been given wound makeup (called moulage) that simulates injuries ranging from the minor to the severe.

Moulage Lead Susy Ledgerwood applies wound makeup to a young victim actor.

Cold Considerations

Because of the cold, the Moulage Team has to work quickly to apply wounds to the 170 people who need them. The team also has to adjust the types of simulated injuries it gives out, minimizing ones that require exposing bare skin to the cold.

A victim actor shows off her simulated finger amputation.

The cold also means that exercise controllers have to keep a careful eye on the well-being of both rescuers and victim actors, the latter of whom may spend hours in the wrecked buildings waiting for rescue. Participant safety is the number one priority, so victim actors are given blankets and handwarmers, advised to stay off the ground as much as possible, and encouraged to take breaks and hot drinks at warming stations and canteen truck.

A victim actor stays warm while waiting for rescuers.


Reality Is Messy

The cold is just one of many factors both rescuers and exercise coordinators have to watch out for.  For years, Lorton has been abandoned, open to the elements, and used for training -- it's a big mess, filled with rubble, broken glass, and sagging ceilings.

Left: Inside a former cell. Right: Off-limits area blocked off by controllers.

It's what makes training at Lorton so realistic (and cool), but it also means that exercise coordinators have to prep the site, blocking off the potential hazard areas to make sure rescuers stay safe while still learning to keep a careful eye on their surroundings.

Geared Up and Ready to Go

Meanwhile, as the victim actors get into position, the CERTs have organized into teams and have gotten their equipment together. And there's a lot of it to bring down to the disaster scene; in addition to the personal gear in their packs and the contents of the CERT trailer, the CERTs have coordinated ahead of time and brought a yard sale's worth of tools, tarps, shelters, stretchers, medical supplies -- all the stuff they need to assist disaster survivors.

CERTs haul their gear down to the disaster scene.
Some of the equipment the CERTs have brought.

CERTs are trained to save lives with the supplies they can find on hand, including duct tape, cardboard, and rags. But being prepared and bringing additional equipment always helps (as long as you're willing to carry it in, around, and out).

Triage, Treatment, and Transport

The exercise officially begins at 10 AM. CERTs arrive on scene, set up a command post, size up the area, and start to deploy search teams. To the watching victim actors, the first few minutes look like a bunch of people standing around and fiddling with tarps and whiteboards. However, getting organized at the beginning is crucial to an effective response, especially before the situation grows in size and complexity.

CERTs set up supplies in the Logistics area. Meanwhile, other CERTs are setting up Medical and the Command Post.

The most visible part of CERT operations is Rescue, where CERTs operating in teams locate survivors and rapidly assess, triage, and treat each victim to stop the three biggest threats to life (severe bleeding, obstructed airways, and shock) -- ideally in under 30 seconds.

Rescuers record survivor information on a duct tape "dashboard" taped to their legs.

Within those 30 seconds, CERTs will treat major bleeding, and use simple tests to check victims for respiration, perfusion (the flow of blood to extremities), and mental status. The results of those tests will determine if the patient is Green (walking wounded), Yellow (Delayed treatment), Red (Immediate treatment), or Black (dead or expectant).

CERT rescuers assess a victim actor.

Under the stress of the situation, CERTs have to quickly make decisions -- some good, some bad. Survivors are treated. Some are missed on initial passes. Some commands are clear; others are misunderstood. Steps are forgotten. Survivors are mis-tagged. All of this is expected, and part of the learning experience.

Green-tagged survivors who can walk are escorted back to the Medical area. Some of the Yellow-tagged survivors can be given a walking assist, but the more seriously injured will need to be carried out on stretchers, litters, backboards, doors, or whatever means are available. Priority for the six-person lift teams goes to the survivors who are "worst hurt, easiest to get out."

Treating the Wounded

After the survivors are checked into Medical, they're given a head-to-toe assessment and further care. In the beginning, the scene at Medical is relatively calm -- the first survivors to arrive are the Green-tagged walking wounded, with minor injuries.

Green-tagged survivors in the Medical area.

However, as the exercise progresses, more patients arrive, and Medical quickly grows in size and complexity. Patients need to be protected from the elements; dressings and splints need to be inspected and reapplied; and patients must be regularly checked for changes in  condition.

A CERT in Medical assesses a patient.

As rescued survivors keep flowing in, Medical has to be expanded. To keep up, CERTs are transferred from the Rescue and Logistics teams to help with patient care. By the end of the exercise, the Medical area has grown considerably.

The scene in Medical towards the end of the exercise.

Crib Notes

Complicating matters for the Command team, throughout the day CERTs are pulled out of the exercise to participate in a victim extrication skills test, where they must use teamwork, along with wooden levers, blocks, and wedges, to rescue a simulated victim from beneath several hundred pounds of steel beam and rubble.

CERTs use lever to raise the steel beam enough so they can extract the trapped dummy.

Using the skills they've learned in class, teams carefully and gradually lever up the beam, supporting it as they go with a box of crisscrossed blocks (cribbing), so that they can remove the dummy and get back to rescuing live humans.


When Help Arrives

A CERT's job doesn't end when the fire department arrives. Once professional first responders get on scene, they'll take command of the rescue operation (and probably also conduct their own searches and patient assessments). CERTs can greatly assist the transition and continuing rescue effort by briefing the incoming Incident Commander on what they've done, who they've rescued, how severe their injuries are, and anything else about the situation that will help the continuing operation.

CERTs share information with Fairfax County Fire & Rescue during the transfer of command.

CERTs will then operate under the new Incident Commander. Depending on the situation and the available resources, CERTs might continue to work in the rescue, or they might be demobilized after the transition is complete.

In this exercise, CERTs worked with responders from Fairfax County Crosspointe Fire Station 41 to practice the transfer of command.

CERTs and firefighters consult one of the status boards tracking patient information.

Wrapping It Up

By mid-afternoon, the transfer of command has been skilfully and successfully completed, and controllers call an end to the exercise. The CERTs, who over the day had rescued a majority of the record-setting 170 victim actors, gathered to debrief and share feedback from evaluators, who noted both successes and areas for improvement. Finally, the now-graduated Fairfax County CERTs received their certificates.

Just like all skills, CERT skills improve with practice, so the CERTs of Class 85 and 86 were encouraged to stay involved with the CERT program and continue to train, learn new skills, and recruit others into the program.

The newly graduated Fairfax County CERTs of Classes 85 & 86.

Congratulations to all the new CERTs!

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Special thanks to all victim actors, CERT staff, Fire & Rescue Department personnel, and especially to Paul Davis Restoration for donating bottled water, and to Firehouse Subs for helping supply food to all exercise participants.

CERT training classes are free to people over 18 who live or work in Fairfax County. Classes are offered several times each year at the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Academy, as well as other locations throughout the community. Registration is open now for CERT classes starting in March and April 2015 -- click to see class dates and sign up.

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See more photos from the exercise in the album on Facebook and follow the activities of Fairfax County CERT by liking the Fairfax County CERT Facebook page.

Next: In The After-Action, we'll take a look at how the CERTs of Class 85 & 86 gathered intelligence in preparation for the final exercise. We'll also profile some of the volunteer victim actors who participated in the drill.

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