OWENSBORO, Ky. - In January 2000, a tornado smashed through southwestern Owensboro, with emergency responders unable to access some areas for several hours because of the damage.
In October 2007, a tornado hit downtown Owensboro, leaving many without power and damaging several homes. In September 2008, thousands were left without power, and debris filled yards and streets after a windstorm powered by the remnants of Hurricane Ike rolled through the region. Then, in January 2008, disaster came in the form of ice from the sky and left some without power for weeks. These last three disasters were different, officials say, though they were no less devastating. It was what came after the storms that made the difference. It was the people in the bright green hard hats and vests bearing a simple, four-letter name: CERT.
"You need trained help"
In 2002, Daviess County Emergency Management planners learned that federal dollars were available for the creation of a volunteer corps. These volunteers would receive training in disaster preparedness, first aid, basic fire suppression, simple search-and-rescue techniques and more. They are known as the Community Emergency Response Teams.
On Sept. 20, the latest class will begin to receive training to become CERT members.
"We had some funding that was available if we were interested in forming the CERT group," said Vicki Connor, a planner with Daviess County Emergency Management and a coordinator for CERT training and activities. "We needed some volunteers to help us in case we had more disasters."
Funds initially came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Connor said. Now, funds are regularly allocated through the Green River Area Development District.
Though some of the training crosses into the basics of the jobs that firefighters and law enforcement officers do, that's not the point. CERT volunteers aren't meant to replace police or firefighters -- they're a supplement for when traditional emergency response resources are stretched too thin.
"It's to teach people what they can do to help themselves and their neighbors before other help arrives," said Walter Atherton, assistant director of Daviess County Emergency Management.
Another issue is the training itself, Connor said. In the wake of the 2000 tornado, there were plenty of citizens willing to step up and help, but there was no time to train them. "They wanted to help, but they didn't know what to do," Connor said. "There was a need to train them."
Volunteers are like hidden gold during disasters, Connor said, because they can help with paperwork, running shelters, damage assessments and more. "There are so many things to be done after disasters that you never have enough help," Connor said. "But you need trained help."
CERT training is not a quick in and out. The course, which is 24 hours in length, meets for three hours in the evenings once a week, and the topics are fairly heavy in nature.
Students are first trained in disaster preparation. They are taught the proper supplies to have and what amounts. The idea is that they can stand on their own for at least 72 hours before help will get to them. That means adequate food, water, medical supplies and whatever else they need, enough to last three days.
"The understanding of it is that they're built around the idea to take care of themselves and their neighbors immediately following a disaster," said David McCrady, a battalion chief with the Owensboro Fire Department. "When you talk about an ice storm or a hurricane or a tornado or a windstorm, in a large-scale disaster there's going to be times it'll take the responders time to get to folks because of the volume of calls and the physical barriers. Their training is enough for them to take care of themselves and help their neighbors."
Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain teaches a terrorism unit.
"It's centered on improving vigilance and alertness by responsible citizens, willing to report any suspicious activity that would potentially be threatening to community safety and security," Cain said. "We're teaching them what to be cognizant of, what to be observant for."
The next unit takes two nights and covers medical treatment in disasters. Students learn about basic disaster triage, determining who needs the most urgent medical treatment first. They also learn how to do some basic medical treatments that might be needed in a disaster situation.
"We train them on how to treat the masses," Connor said.
One of the units also covers basic search-and rescue techniques. The unit will teach CERT volunteers how to search for people in a disaster or in a missing-person situation. This includes training on when it's safe to search and when it isn't, such as when structures are damaged. They're also taught safety with gas and electrical utilities.
The last major unit covers disaster psychology and disaster organization. Students are taught how to work a disaster situation, how to take control, use people and resources to the best advantage and how to keep a cool head. It also teaches how to properly organize a shelter or other disaster service until emergency services can arrive.
The last night of the unit is when students get to apply all that they've learned. An exercise is conducted for the students at the Owensboro Fire Training Center on Daviess Street, with hands-on situations and multiple scenarios to test the students' knowledge.
"They are the ideal persons and individuals that we want to have involved as volunteers"
In the seven years since CERT was initiated in Daviess County, 18 classes have been taught, with 450 qualified members as a result.
"Having that many people around the community that have an idea of what to do safely, that's the value (of the program)," Atherton said.
In the wake of the 2007 tornado and the 2008 windstorm, CERT members scoured their neighborhoods and the city. The biggest role they played was in helping with damage assessments, which freed up emergency crews for more critical duties.
"During the ice storm, it was over 1,200 hours that our CERT volunteers did, doing welfare checks, damage assessments," Connor said.
"These CERT individuals were extremely valuable and served a great purpose," Daviess County Judge-Executive Reid Haire said. "The CERT folks have had the training, know the contacts, know what to do and how to get things done. As a result of that, they are the ideal persons and individuals that we want to have involved as volunteers. ... Our emergency management folks really do a marvelous job in training them and getting them ready."
Shane Cox, a local insurance company owner, is one of the 450 CERT members in Daviess County. During the 2009 ice storm, his knowledge helped his neighbors stay safe during the power outages and his diligence meant those in need got medication in time.
The class taught him the value of preparedness, he said. His CERT equipment is always ready for use.
"I guess the main thing that stuck with me most is how unprepared the average citizen in Daviess County is for disaster," Cox said. "I can probably be up and running in 60 seconds. Then I immediately go to my neighbors' houses. (During the ice storm) I knocked on doors for seven days."
Cox said he's not just learned how to be prepared, but how and when to act.
"They're really particular about their process. They don't want an ambulance chaser," Cox said. "They want somebody that is really going to take this serious."
In the wake of these disasters, Cox said he's seen that people value the CERT volunteers embedded throughout the community.
"We are there on ground zero," Cox said. "I've had people knock on my door because they know I'm with CERT. Once your neighbors know you're there, (they know they've got you) in case an emergency happens."
And with each disaster, Haire said, lessons have been learned on how the CERT members can be used.
"The one thread that seems to be the constant challenge in these calamities and disasters is communication," Haire said. "We've learned it's essential we have the ability to communicate with those CERT volunteers as quickly as possible, galvanize them and organize them to go into particular areas where we need assistance."
Though CERT volunteers are trained to initially function on their own, Haire said that once first contact is made with emergency responders, the plan is that all CERT volunteers then make contact with emergency management coordinators to report to needed locations.
The amount of preparedness, Connor said, has led state authorities to recognize Daviess County's CERT as the foremost in the state. The local team has led to the formation of several others in Hancock, Ohio and Muhlenberg counties.
That only means this area is better prepared for whatever comes.
"There's (more than) 400 of us. There's no telling how many people have helped somebody," Cox said. "I'll probably do it until the day I die. The most rewarding thing is my kids look up to me because I help people."