Neighbors Helping Neighbors- Community Response to Disaster

By Joan Gould

As wildfires raged through Bastrop County in 2011, Angie Fontenot, now the Tomball Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) facilitator, led a team of caretakers and animals from a research facility to safety as the encroaching flames threatened their homes and families.

“The fire was four miles from the facility, and I had 21 staff members looking to me to take care of the animals they loved, but I knew nothing about fire, other than smoke kills them first,” Fontenot said. “I was calling firefighters asking, ‘What do I do? Please give me advice.’

“Our neighbors, our community should know how to respond,” Fontenot said. “I didn’t understand why we didn’t have programs to prepare for things like this.”

In July 2015, Fontenot moved to the Houston area and learned about the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. She enrolled in a training course and soon after took on a more active role, becoming a CERT trainer and facilitator in the Tomball area. Fontenot has since led eight classes and trained more than 200 people in the CERT program.

Help is as Close as a Neighbor

When disaster hits, CERT volunteers are often first on the scene in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches. They use their knowledge and training to assess potentially hazardous situations and are equipped to provide immediate assistance.

“One percent of our population is a first responder,” said Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Sloan. “That means the other 99% of us are looking to do something to take care of ourselves, our community, and our families.”

CERT volunteers are trained to complete a preliminary walk-through of the disaster scene and report their findings to first responders when they arrive on site.

“Now first responders can get to the location that may need assistance faster, rather than doing it all from scratch,” Sloan said.

The CERT program, a division of Citizen Corps, offers an eight-week, 24-hour training course taught by a variety of first responders and subject-matter experts, covering topics like disaster preparedness, fire suppression, basic medical treatment assessment and first aid, search and rescue techniques, and rescuer safety. Volunteers culminate their training with a disaster simulation and debriefing.

“It’s Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for adults,” Sloan said. “It’s a refresher for things we may have learned in the past that we have forgotten. It’s a reminder that – first and foremost – can I take care of myself, my family, and my property? If I can do all those things and I do that successfully, then I know I’m capable of helping someone else.”

Sloan emphasized that CERT training provides an opportunity for participants to understand their capabilities and strengths, so they can be aware of their comfort level in helping other people during life-threatening, high-stress situations. Not everyone is comfortable assisting an injured person or strong enough to carry someone out of danger.

A Force Multiplier for Preparedness

Participation in CERT isn’t limited to disaster response. CERT volunteers often assist local officials and first responders during special events, including the Junior Olympics, the MS150, high-profile sporting events, and various other non-emergency activities.

After training, Sloan said, volunteers take their newfound knowledge back to their homes and communities. They’re encouraged to complete preparedness steps to take care of themselves and protect their families and property during an emergency. These tasks might be as basic as putting together a disaster kit, keeping their vehicle’s fuel tanks at least halfway filled during hurricane season, or stocking up on enough resources and supplies to last three to seven days.

“They are a force multiplier of preparedness,” Sloan said. “By completing these simple steps now, they will not need to rely on assistance from others during a disaster or emergency.”

Fontenot adds: “It’s about preparedness to me. I want the communities and every family in the area to go through this program and know what to do in an emergency.”

Putting CERT Skills to the Test

Each February for the past 14 years, Harris County hosts as many as 18 CERT volunteer teams for a day of skills practice and testing. Teams travel from all over Harris County and other areas of the state like Dallas, Austin, Orange County, and as far away as New York and Illinois.

“Not every jurisdiction in the country or every state in the country is doing what we do,” Sloan said.

Teams spend the day practicing skills, including triage, incident command, evidence identification, medical treatment, and fire suppression. Scoring is based on the team’s successful completion of each task.

Interested in Becoming a CERT Volunteer or Starting a Team?

“We are very proud of the fact that our residents in Harris County take the time to go through the training to become more aware and better prepared for the risks and threats that we may be vulnerable to in our area,” said Sloan.

Even if she never has to use it in an emergency, Fontenot knows the benefits her training has already provided.

“If I had known during the fires what I know now, I still would have networked, but I wouldn’t have been as nervous,” she said. “Gaining the confidence that you know this stuff and you have the skills makes people feel more comfortable helping their neighbors. You don’t have to have all the knowledge in the world. We can find things that work for you.”

Anyone interested in joining the CERT program or starting a CERT team in their neighborhood, church, or workplace should visit www.harriscountycitizencorps.com to find upcoming training courses and sign up to receive updates from Harris County. CERT volunteers can also register resources like a boat or warehouse that might be useful to the community during an emergency.

“There are a variety of resources that the community might have available as we’ve seen on numerous occasions going back to (hurricanes) Katrina, Ike, and Harvey,” Sloan said. “It takes all of us working together to make us successful in our recovery process.”

National Night Out

Don’t wait for an emergency to get involved in your community. Check out some other ways to contribute to your community below:

Host a National Night Out Event in Your Neighborhood
National Night Out: Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019
National Night Out, celebrated annually in Texas on the first Tuesday of October, is a chance for communities to gather with local law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical service personnel, and community leaders in a fun atmosphere to bring awareness to crime and drug prevention, strengthen neighborhood spirit, and reinforce police-community relations.
• Consider hosting a barbecue, block party, or neighborhood walk. Activities can include safety demonstrations, youth events, visits from emergency personnel, car seat checks, and more.
• Register Your National Night Out Event at https://natw.org/registration for planning tips and ideas and to receive information and resources about National Night Out.
• Would you like a representative from Precinct 4 to speak at your National Night Out? Request a speaker here. www.hcp4.net/assistance/speakersbureau.

Dog Walker Double Duty
Dog Walker Watch participants assist local law enforcement by acting as extra sets of eyes and ears in the neighborhood while walking their dogs.
• Register at https://natw.org/dog-walker-watch
• Download the guide.
• Walk your dog and keep your eyes and ears peeled for suspicious activity.

CERT Facts
Harris County CERT began in 2002 and is now the second-largest CERT program in the United States, with more than 274 CERT teams and 41,000 trained CERT volunteers.