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

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