Be Prepared for Disaster: Take CERT Training Today

The closing is scheduled, and you have a mile-long list in front of you detailing everything you need to do before moving into your new home. You’ve met with your insurance agent, told everyone about your change of address, and contacted utility companies to transfer phones, heating, and electricity.

As long as that list is, there is another important item you should add: CERT (Community Education Response Team) training.

“Emergency?!?,” you say. “Hey, I’m just worried about whether the couch will fit through the front door, OK?”

And that’s natural. When we buy a new home, whether it’s a studio condominium or an elaborate Victorian mansion, we tend to think of it in positive terms, i.e., how happy the family will be, how much more space we will have, how nice it will be to actually own where we live.

But as we all know, bad things happen. And when they do, particularly en masse as in an earthquake or other large-scale disaster, don’t count on calling 911 and returning to your everyday life shortly thereafter.

Captain Ricci Zombeck of the Alameda Fire Department puts the importance of such training in very straightforward terms: “Every resident has a responsibility to this community to prepare themselves. In reality, they are sort of the first line of defense.”

Zombeck explains that during regular emergencies – a fire at one house or building, for example – emergency service providers face what they are equipped to handle. “Our regular emergencies are very different from a larger disaster, because even if a regular fire is large, there’s a lot of help. We have this policy called mutual aid,” he explains.

That means a larger than expected fire in Oakland, for example, might receive help from Alameda, Berkeley, or San Leandro fire departments and vice versa.

But an earthquake, a terrorist event, or some other large-scale disaster would tax the East Bay’s emergency resources very quickly. “There’s a vast difference between the emergencies we handle every day, even the larger ones, and a disaster that’s regional in nature,” Zombeck points out.

Nor is that merely one man’s opinion, but a hard, calculated fact. “In a disaster situation, emergency resources will be strapped to the limit,” says Fremont Division Chief Vic Valdes. “For example, in the Northridge earthquake, many areas were on their own for three days. You have to be prepared to fulfill that [the emergency services] role. CERT offers a way to do that, with fairly simple, non-technical skills people can develop.”

Training topics include being personally prepared for a disaster, understanding how to help your neighbors in the event of a large-scale disaster, and basic knowledge in searching for possible survivors.

Those still looking for a home may want to enroll in the CERT course in their new community, too, even if they have not yet found the perfect home. Among the topics house-hunters will find particularly interesting are learning under what circumstances fires may not be doused, but rather, allowed to burn, due to environmental or other safety concerns.
Each community tailors the course somewhat to their particular needs. For example, the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department only offers CERT courses in the spring and fall, so that teaching doesn’t pull resources away from the fire department during the busy summer months, when fire season is in full swing.

Best of all, however, is that new homeowners will get to know their new neighbors very quickly. Upon completion of the CERT course, most fire departments put CERT graduates in touch with each other, forming CERT teams that receive ongoing training and support.

After all, it would be a bit awkward to knock on your neighbor’s door and introduce yourself only after a major earthquake has struck. Zombeck points out, too, that it is important to know, ahead of time, the particular qualities of your neighborhood. Who is elderly or disabled and might need additional help? How far away is another CERT person? Which of your CERT-graduate neighbors work from home?

Forming teams that are well-trained and well-connected ensures that the training is actually used when it’s needed. “The CERT course is about actually developing into a team in your own neighborhood,” Zombeck explains.

CERT training is important enough that Zombeck works with residents to ensure they can take the training however it fits into their schedules. “People ask, ‘Shouldn’t I wait until I can take all five classes at once?’ I say no. Get started and we will welcome you back for classes you missed, or any you want to take over,” he says.

In addition to the CERT training, most fire departments also offer a personal emergency training, which is a basic, one-hour course to help prepare people for natural or other wide-scale disasters.

Nor are age or physical ability automatic obstacles. “We’ve had teens as young as 13 years old take the course,” Zombeck explains, adding that there’s really no upper age limit. “And as for physical ability, there’s a need for all hands. For instance, if you need to carry folks out of a building, there’s obviously a need for physical strength. But there’s also a support element to that task,” he notes, which could be done by someone who isn’t even able to stand.

As a side benefit, CERT training is also a great way to get involved in your new community and meet your neighbors. Says Zomebeck, “I think people should look at what their new community offers and what they can give in return. This is a great way to be a part of the community – and that’s really what a community is all about.”

For more information:
*To register for Alameda’s CERT training, call 510-337-2127, or visit
*To register for Fremont’s CERT training, call 510-494-4244, or visit
*Most other Bay Area communities also offer CERT training. Contact your local fire department for additional details.

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