A member of the Community Emergency Response Team assists an injured woman
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CERTs Balance Competing Needs During the Pandemic

August 2020

In mid-May, in Columbus, OH, unrelenting rain led to record rainfall totals over the course of two days. The rain also led to flooding in the area. To help, Franklin County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members joined county Emergency Management and Homeland Security officials to assess the damage. This required CERT volunteers to pivot from their work assisting with COVID-19 response to address the flooding.

Christie LeClaire-Murphy, a member of the CERT, had been helping with COVID-19 testing at nursing homes. She also collected food donations and made cloth face coverings. After the flooding, she shifted gears to help with assigning damage assessment teams and operating the radio. She donned rain gear to review damage in the still pouring rain, using special paper and pens designed to hold up when wet. “Balancing emergencies and going where you’re needed is part of the role of a CERT,” she says.

The CERT program educates volunteers about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area. It also trains members in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations. FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division creates programs, training, and tools to help CERT members be ready when disaster strikes.

Learning to Juggle

As the need for COVID-19 assistance continues, CERTs are examining ways to help during natural disasters while dealing with the pandemic.

For New York City CERT volunteer Terese Flores, “This has been a juggling act...The situation unfolded, changed, and expanded in some areas and contracted in others just like a natural disaster would.”

Flores has helped with food distribution for seniors and residents with disabilities. She also posted information at her son’s school about COVID-19 resources.

Edward Smalls IV has also helped distribute food during the pandemic in New York. While he hasn’t been assigned to help with other emergency work yet, he says that his CERT training has prepared him for balancing his priorities. As the number of new COVID-19 cases slow and more people go back to work, he’s now done with food distribution by 11 a.m. This is hours earlier than he was able to finish in the spring and allows him time to focus on other ways to help.

“On the final day of the CERT training class, the instructor said, ‘You may start out doing very little, but there’s going to be that one day you’ll get that call, and you’ll really have to be involved. Where will you be?’”

“I took that to heart,” Smalls continued. “I was very excited to be there for my city to address the pandemic. I’ll be there for whatever else comes our way as well.”

The pandemic meant Elizabeth Marsh had to quickly change tracks. A Columbus CERT team leader in charge of scheduling volunteers for a sports festival and terrorist attack exercise, she was looking forward to the events—until COVID-19 canceled those plans. She is now sorting and assembling face shields and has worked as a team leader for a drive-through collection site for masks, gowns, and hand sanitizer.

New Work During the Pandemic

Even for those whose work has focused on COVID-19-related tasks for months, taking on new and different related assignments is part of the what’s expected. For example, CERT volunteers in New Canaan, CT stepped in to help with logistics to plan a car parade for high school graduates in June. Similarly, the CERT in N. Aurora, IL helped manage traffic at a drive-through graduation for middle school students.

And in Bartow and Cartersville Counties in Georgia, the CERT helped package and distribute some of the more than 400,000 lunches and breakfasts given to students after schools closed in March.

For Marsh, helping out wherever she is needed has made a difficult time easier.

“The most inspiring part of volunteering with CERT is the faith that CERT leadership has (placed) in me…placing me in positions of responsibility and trusting me with those assignments,” she said. “It really gave me a feeling of hopefulness in a time of helplessness. It felt great to do good things with good people for the greater good of our community.”

Has your community been facing severe weather conditions or other emergencies during the ongoing pandemic response? If so, how has your CERT been able to support the community? FEMA would love to hear from you. If you would like to share your story, please send an email to FEMA-prepare@fema.dhs.gov.

Disclaimer: The reader recognizes that the federal government provides links and informational data on various disaster preparedness resources and events and does not endorse any non-federal events, entities, organizations, services, or products. Please let us know about other events and services for individual and community preparedness that could be included in future newsletters by contacting FEMA-prepare@fema.dhs.gov.

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