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

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