A member of the Community Emergency Response Team assists an injured woman
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Teens Lead and Succeed in CERT

December 2019

Campers at the FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp pose during a CERT drill.

Before Hsin Ya “Jessie” Huang became a member of FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council (YPC), she didn’t know much about Community Emergency Response Teams—CERTs. Mainly, she knew the program’s main goals to educate volunteers about the hazards their communities may face and to train them to respond safely, but not much else. As President of her school’s Red Cross Club, she was constantly on the lookout for more ways to get her fellow students thinking about disaster preparedness. “I feel like preparedness is really important because, as a teenager myself, if there is a disaster in my community, I want to be able to respond. The more people [are] prepared,” she says, “the better.”

However, she couldn’t find much information about CERT in her area. It wasn’t until she became a YPC member that she was able to learn more. Just a few weeks after joining the YPC, she trained for Teen CERT with the FEMA Region X Youth Preparedness Camp, held in Stanwood, Washington. Now, she wants to bring CERT to her school. “I hope to get more people interested in preparedness and taking classes,” she says, “so they’re able to help in their communities.”

More than ever, teens and young people are joining CERTs and making a difference in their communities. But, like Huang, they need connections, advocates, and information. Read on to learn more about the unique abilities and perspectives young people bring to CERT and how to encourage youth participation in CERT in your community.

Youth Help Build A Whole Community Approach

Each year, CERTs support disaster responses, help their communities prepare, and train new members. They help their whole communities before, during, and after disasters, whether in a neighborhood, the workplace, or at school. So, it is important that they are made up of representatives from the whole community. This includes people of different backgrounds, skillsets, languages, abilities, and of course, ages.

Campers at the FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp practice cribbing.

Teens can make existing CERT programs stronger and lead the development of new programs. They bring a variety of skills, perspectives, and advantages to their CERT training. For example, young people are experts in their own lives, and they know the places they go to best. In these spaces, they’ve also built key relationships, whether with peers or with the adults around them.

For Wyatt Reed, a member of FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council trained in CERT, nowhere is this more evident than in schools. By leveraging their experience and knowledge of their schools and the people who are there daily, young people can provide critical support to first responders.

“[At school,] I know all the classrooms,” Reed says. “I know what classrooms are in use and what aren’t. I know where people are and where people aren’t. You have a relationship with the people you’re going to work with. Those people can be resources [in an emergency].”

In this way, CERTs can also support a school’s emergency operations plan. They can also assist emergency services personnel, providing valuable surge capacity to local first responders when needed. What is more, Students are also likely to take home lessons learned in the classroom. In this way, they can share preparedness information with their families.

YPC member Grace Harris surveys the damage of the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California.

Teens also bring other skills and resilience to disaster preparedness. Reed believes teens add a unique resilience. “Teens are very resilient,” he says. “If something comes our way and knocks us down, we’re going to get back up. We have to be problem solvers.”

Buffy Waldie, a Teen CERT instructor in Mart, Texas, would agree. “I don’t think adults give teenagers enough credit for what they can and can’t do,” she says in the CERT in Action video. “If you teach them to rise to the expectation, they will. They’ll be able to handle it.” From providing first aid at school to shadowing EMTs, she’s seen this firsthand. When the water system in a nearby town failed and they were left without water for more than a week, Mart’s Teen CERT even used their training to support the community during this difficult time.

Reed also thinks teens can lend expertise in technology, from social media to troubleshooting computer issues. Grace Harris, also a member of the YPC, is just one example. She is a member of Sacramento CERT where she helps the CERT with digital communications and deployed for the 2018 Camp Fire. Through this experience, she learned firsthand that everyone can help during a disaster.

“You don’t have to be a firefighter or a paramedic to be helpful in a disaster,” she said. “The true heroes…were also those who fulfilled a need we didn’t expect. Website development, chicken care, calligraphy, and typing might be the last skills that we think of as useful in a major disaster. However, they were crucial to us.” Remembering CERT training, she added, “I encourage all people to take the basic CERT training so that they are better prepared to share their skills in emergencies.”

Encouraging Youth Involvement in CERT

YPC member Grace Harris assists a survivor at a Disaster Recovery Center for the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, California.

To help those interested in encouraging youth involvement in CERT, FEMA developed Teen CERT. Through Teen CERT, young people complete the CERT Basic curriculum and facilitators have access to additional materials to adapt the training to the high school setting. For planners, whether teens themselves, teachers, or other adults, Teen CERT materials can answer questions about building a program at your school. It also includes resources tailored for teens, such as a brochure and a training workbook.

Students and teachers know that between classes, testing, and extracurriculars, making the time can be challenging. However, Teen CERTs across the country have found creative ways to do just that, and there’s more than one successful model. For example, many high schools require students to earn service hours. In this way, CERT serves another need and planners have leveraged the requirement to garner support programs at their school.

Some schools treat Teen CERT as an extra-curricular activity, including it as a club or after-school option. Others offer academic credit. Susan Graves, Safety Coordinator for the Lincoln County School District in Oregon, said on the Teen CERT Webinar that for her high schools, a semester class was ideal. The daily instruction, she said, helped students “integrate [what they were learning] into their whole being and mindset, while also letting them take ownership.”

Whether or not students are earning academic credit, CERT training can bring subjects to life and reinforce learning elsewhere. For example, students can apply chemistry skills in lessons about fires, earth science when learning about relevant local hazards, and health sciences and psychology in the disaster medical and psychology units.

The Launching and Maintaining the Training guide also addresses questions planners may have. For example, due of the nature of disasters, school administrations and parents are often concerned about liability. Just as for sports, the school’s legal advisor could write a liability waiver for CERT. CERT also places safety at the center of training. Students are trained first to identify dangers and stay safe, then how to respond if necessary.

Campers at the FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp take a break from CERT training.

How to Get Started

If you are interested in CERT or if you are interested in working with your CERT to ensure young people are represented, you can get started with the following materials:

Teen CERT: Launching and Maintaining the Training

Teen CERT Brochure

Teen CERT Training Participant Workbook (hard copy only, free from the FEMA Warehouse)

Teen CERT Webinar

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