Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The After-Action: Gathering Intel on Your Neighborhood

As a CERT, you might someday be called upon to do CERT things. And CERTs don't deploy to far-off lands... we are a resource for our communities: where we live, work, go to school, and live our lives.

So how well do you know your neighbors and your neighborhood, so you can better help when a disaster strikes?

As part of the follow-up to the Nov. 15 CERT 85 & 86 graduation full-scale exercise, a few of the CERTs who took part gave me access to the Google Group they used for planning, so I could see the archived discussions and get insights into their process.

Here are some of the actions they took, along with some lessons that you can apply to your own preparedness planning.

Christine and Mike (and Brad, not pictured) met at the Fire Academy meet some of their Class 86 counterparts, and also to discuss exercise preparations.

Action: To start, members of the Command Staff and other interested CERTs came together and decided to set up a Google Group, which they would use to organize, discuss strategies and tactics, share intelligence, coordinate logistics, and track tasks.

Lesson: Talk to your neighbors. You may have lived next to them for years, but how well do you know your neighbors? They'll be your most important resource in a crisis. You're not going to have the luxury of being surrounded by 30 like-minded people who've worked together through 25 hours of disaster training. Do you know which of your neighbors might have skills, equipment, or local knowledge that might be important in a disaster? How about those who might need special consideration during an emergency?

Learn who else is a CERT, who's prepared, and who would like to be. Then keep in touch with them. In addition to talking face-to-face, set up an online discussion group, forum, or listserv, and join a Local CERT Team, so you can talk and plan before an emergency hits.

Action: The CERTs started out by getting an overview (literally) of the Lorton training site, using aerial imagery from Google Maps.

Lesson: Look at the big picture. You don't have to have a camera-equipped drone (of course, it'd be cooler if you did), but you can check out satellite and aerial photos from the mapping service of your choice. It'll give you a different perspective on potential hazards and resources near you that you might not have noticed from ground level.

An annotated view of the Lorton site from outside the fence. Photo: Chris Dodge & Sean Putnam.

Action: Shortly afterwards, a group member spoke up, saying he'd previously trained at Lorton, and shared some warning about hazards on-site. Next, some of the CERTs went down to the site and took photos from outside the fence, which they annotated and shared with the group. (Later, the CERTs also got permission to actually go to the site and look around.)

Lesson: Find the ground truth. Find the people who've been around and know the area. If it's your neighborhood, it should be you... but you might need to look around with fresh eyes. Go around by car, and on foot. Ask yourself: In case of a disaster, what are the key ways to get into and out of the area? What are the bottlenecks that would hinder access in an emergency? Are there any alternate routes?

FEMA floodmap for the area around the Fairfax County Government Center.

Action: Next, the CERTs shared information they'd found from web searches about the Lorton training site, and about previous CERT final exercises (including posts from this blog and our Facebook page).

Lesson: Do your research. Search online for information about the hazards and resources in your area, which could include everything from; FEMA flood maps; locations of power lines, pipelines, fault lines, and landslide zones; fire and police stations and medical facilities. Also, check news articles to see what disasters your area has previously faced (including industrial accidents, fires, storms, etc.), and what the response was like.

Map of the Lorton site, drawn on a 6'x6' shower curtain. Photo: Chris Dodge.

Action: As they gathered info, the CERTs took the big overview picture and assigned numbers to the buildings on the site. Then, they started identifying tasks that needed to be done, and found people to do them.

Lesson: Establish a Common Operational Picture: Make sure you're all able to work off the same page, and that you understand the names of streets, buildings, and landmarks. Know the scope of the area you're dealing with and trying to prepare for. Then, when you identify tasks, determine who's responsible for getting them done.

Part of the inventory spreadsheet the CERTs used.

Action: The CERTs identified items they wanted to bring, which turned out to be a lot. They used a tracking spreadsheet to account for who was bringing what, which helped highlight gaps and also helped people make sure items were returned to their proper owners.

Lesson: Take inventory. Odds are, you probably won't have a common supply cache to draw from. But people will have resources they can share (if not loan) in times of emergency. We can see an example of this during power outages, where neighborhoods will come together and have a barbecue, so that perishable items don't go to waste. Knowing who has chainsaws, generators, cribbing material, and similar items will help neighbors help neighbors.

Division controllers using FRS radios during a Dec. 2014 CERT Emergency Communications exercise.

Action: The CERTs discussed using hand-held radios (both FRS and amateur band) for communications (though ultimately didn't use them since not many of the CERTs had trained with them).

Lesson: Have a communications plan. If you plan on using FRS or ham radios, set up a comm plan (including frequencies and call signs), then practice it. Or, if you're using phones, make sure you have each others' numbers. However, figure out how you can communicate needs and resources during an emergency -- especially if power and cell networks are disrupted. Be sure there are alternate plans in case the primary and secondary methods fall through.

CERTs setting up the Command Post during the Nov. 15 exercise.

Action: The CERTS had other discussion, speculation, suggestions, and planning, some of which ultimately went unused or was made irrelevant.

Lesson: Be flexible and resilient. You're not going to account for everything that might happen in a disaster. And that's okay... what you can do is set a baseline for your response and what you might reasonably expect to encounter, and when reality hits you in the face, adjust accordingly.

Do you have any examples of resources or actions you've taken to increase your community's preparedness? Please share in the comments.

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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