Monday, August 18, 2014

"Over" Is So Over: CERT Emergency Communication Class

What's the greatest logistical problem during emergency events? History shows that it's maintaining effective communications.

On Tuesday, over 20 Fairfax County CERTs took the CERT Emergency Communications class, so they could become more effective communicators during emergency events as they coordinate with other CERTs and first responders in Fairfax County and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments [COG] area.

Instructor Brian Talbott demonstrates the functional shape of a communications plan. Photo: Joe Loong.
Communications Plan
Instructor Brian Talbott gave an overview of how CERTs use communications in emergencies, from reporting team status, highlighting safety concerns, and sharing information between team members and up the chain to the next level.

Crucial to managing all this is the use of a communications plan, which determines who communicates to whom, and how they will be communicating.
The types of communications tools will vary depending on the conditions on scene and the equipment available, but could include everything from:
  • Runners carrying written messages or USB thumb drives
  • Landline telephones
  • Cell phones
  • Text messages
  • Email
  • FRS and GMRS radios
  • Citizen Band (CB) radios
  • Amateur radios (Ham) 
  • Dedicated public-safety-band radios
Left: Motorola radio used by Fairfax County Fire & Rescue (Cost: c. $6,000). Right: Uniden FRS/GMRS radio in the CERT radio supply (Cost: c. $30). Photo: Joe Loong.
Each method has advantages and disadvantages, but no matter what tools are being used, responders need a solid communications plan to prevent the system from being overwhelmed.

Focus on the Family
Much of the class focused on the use of Family Radio Service (FRS) radios, which are part of CERT's radio cache. These hand-held radios are fairly inexpensive and commonly used, which also presents challenges in a crowded spectrum where anyone can listen in.

CERTs were walked through the basics of operating FRS radios, both on technical aspects like keeping the antenna vertical and staying stationary when transmitting, and other best practices: Using call signs instead of names, being mindful of speaker volume in crowds, and speaking across the microphone, not directly into it, to increase sound quality.

Fairfax County Fire & Rescue's Radio Procedures
CERTs were also given insights into Fairfax County Fire & Rescue's radio procedures, since in the event of an emergency situation, CERTs would most likely be interacting with responders from the county.

CERTs learned to:
  • Begin calls with who's being called, followed by who's calling (e.g. "CERT Command, this is Team 1.")
  • Use plain language, not 10 Codes
  • End their communications without saying "over"
  • Follow the "echo principle," where instead of just saying "copy," repeating back what was just told to you
  • Use prowords (or procedure words), some of which may be different from those used by other jurisdictions (including "direct," which means "I understand/am available"). [For other examples, see this video from]

Practice, Practice, Practice
CERT attendees got a chance to practice their radio technique in the classroom. Instructor Talbott also advised CERTs to familiarize themselves with how Fairfax County Fire & Rescue personnel communicate on the radio in real-life situations by listening to actual communications online, or using a scanner smartphone app.

Fairfax County CERT will be offering additional emergency communications classes, and hopes to hold a radio simulation exercise where CERTs can practice emergency communications in the field... naturally, stay tuned.

For more information about this and other CERT training opportunities, follow the weekly CERT emails and visit and search for "CERT".

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

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