A member of the Community Emergency Response Team assists an injured woman
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CERT Volunteers on COVID-19 Front Lines

May 2020

smiling helper From directing snaking lines of cars with patients waiting to be tested for COVID-19 to organizing a “call-a-thon” seeking personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers across the country are stepping in to help with the coronavirus pandemic.

“In San Francisco, we have been preparing for an earthquake, but we train for all hazards, so our volunteers are well positioned to take direction and provide leadership in any disaster,” said Erica Arteseros, a captain with the San Francisco Fire Department and program coordinator for its Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT).

CERT, including the San Francisco NERT, is a program that educates volunteers about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and trains members in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations.

In early March, the San Francisco NERT began passing out fliers about COVID-19 safety in busy areas and at transit stops. When the stay-at-home order was issued a few weeks later, volunteers interacted with residents while practicing social distancing by placing flyers on front doors and store windows. More than 400 volunteers have assisted. “Our volunteers were getting a lot of appreciation, a lot of praise from the public,” Arteseros said.

CERT volunteers are also stepping in to assist as hospitals run low on PPE. CERT volunteers processed, repackaged, and delivered PPE allocated by the Strategic National Stockpile from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to two healthcare providers and one tribal nation in Pinal County, AZ. In Issaquah, WA, CERT volunteers are conducting a “call-a-thon” to companies that might have PPE, such as dentists, salons, and construction companies, so that supplies can be donated to first responders. Volunteers then collect the donations.

Testing Site Support

Many communities, including Washoe County, NV; Amherst, MA; and New Hampshire Regional Public Health Networks, have trained CERT teams to assist in managing operations at screening and testing sites, along with staging and equipping facilities.

In Sacramento, CA, CERT volunteers wearing N95 masks and gloves helped with logistics, traffic control, and crowd management at a testing site located at the California Exposition grounds, where the state fair is held each summer. The CERT HAZMAT First Responder class was valuable preparation for responding to a pandemic, as was training by the California Department of Public Health on radiological decontamination, said Robert Ross, chief of operations for the Sacramento CERT.

More than 50 volunteers participated. “They are very motivated and excited to help in any way they can versus watching it all play out on TV,” Ross said.

Delivering Food to Residents Disproportionately Affected by Disasters

CERT volunteers across the country established programs to deliver pre-packaged meals, groceries, and other basic goods to residents who are disproportionately affected by disasters, including older adults and children. The Cummington, MA CERT team is completing a community needs survey to match CERT volunteers with individuals and organizations in need of support.

“We are a small community with many elders, where neighbors are already seeking to help neighbors,” said Sarah Fournier, the Cummington Fire/EMS, CERT Coordinator. “Our Cummington Area CERT is glad to be of service lending a hand with organization, support, and ensuring safe practices."

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, the BOCH CERT, which includes volunteers from the towns of Brewster, Orleans, Chatham, and Harwich, helps with food shopping and medicine pickup and delivery, including delivering boxes with two weeks’ worth of food to veterans and veterans’ widows.

“Organized groups like CERTs reduce the workload for the already stretched thin responders — fire, police, etc. — and assist in providing the responders an opportunity to orderly prioritize the myriad [of] missions at hand,” said David Miller, the BOCH CERT manager.

The Upper Merrimack Valley Medical Reserve Corps, also in Massachusetts, is delivering food to older residents and making and delivering fabric masks. Because there is a large Chinese-American population, one of the volunteers translated information about COVID-19 and available assistance for community members who speak Mandarin.

“The Westford Council on Aging would not be in a proactive position during this COVID-19 pandemic to offer essential basic life needs for our town’s 4,600 older adults without our Medical Reserve Corps volunteers,” said Council on Aging Director Jennifer Claro.

Citizen Corps volunteers in Delaware County, PA, which borders Philadelphia, are helping to staff a respite center for first responders who have COVID-19 exposure concerns and do not want to go home.

The Islamic Center of Bloomington, IN, created a CERT to help with a variety of needs, ranging from assisting seniors and those with medical needs to single mothers and those facing financial hardship.

Ready to Help

CERT leaders say their volunteers are eager to get involved, and some are frustrated to be turned away. For example, to protect volunteers, only those under age 60 were cleared to take part in distributing information in San Francisco. In Sacramento, “We have a lot of 65-and-over members who are begging us to find ways to have them help,” Ross said. Some CERTs are finding ways that quarantined volunteers can contribute from home, such as making masks and conducting welfare phone calls to check on residents who are disproportionately affected.

For those helping with Ross’s CERT, “Knowing the risks, they are not flinching in helping where it is safe to do so, and they are being honest about what they feel safe doing and when they are not comfortable with a task. This is all we can ask from volunteers. But even with the risks, they are stepping up in large numbers to help.”

To find a CERT near you visit https://community.fema.gov/Register/Register_Search_Programs.

This article first appeared in the monthly Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter. Subscribe here.