In case of an emergency or natural disaster, would you be able to extinguish a fire? Turn off a gas line? Splint a broken bone?
Through the Clovis Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, the Clovis Fire Department teaches all of that and more — for free.
Residents who complete the 20-hour training are encouraged to join the team of volunteers who help firefighters with public education and community projects, but it’s not a requirement.
“Most of the people that leave our training, we tell them, ‘If you don’t ever come back, as long as you leave here being able to help yourself and your neighbors during a disaster, then we’ve succeeded,’” said Clovis fire prevention officer Andy Isolano.
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He and Clovis Fire life safety/enforcement manager Chad Fitzgerald teach the CERT curriculum twice a year to adults who register for the training. It is taught in 2 1/2-hour sessions twice a week for four weeks.
Fitzgerald estimates about 300 residents have completed the program since its inception 10 years ago, and there are about 30 to 50 active members of the Clovis Emergency Response Team at any given time.
“I want to train people who are interested, have a passion for it and could definitely do more for folks, whether it’s just during a normal day or in a time of crisis,” Fitzgerald said.
CERT is a nationwide program, but it’s called the Community Emergency Response Team elsewhere. It started in the late 90s, Fitzgerald said, due to earthquakes in southern California.
“L.A. City Fire Department was kind of the impetus for it because they realized that in a lot of circumstances they have citizens wanting to do their best to do what they can,” he explained. “They get on scene and they think they’re doing great, but then they end up being part of the problem.”
CERT’s curriculum includes fire safety, fire extinguisher training, splinting, bandaging, triage, disaster psychology and awareness of hazards that exist in the community as well as throughout the state, Fitzgerald said.
“That way, a more informed public, if they show up, might do more good,” he said.
But CERT volunteers do more than respond to crises. They show up at local events to teach kids how to call 911 and teach adults how to use a fire extinguisher. They also provide support to firefighters during training and active fires.
“When there’s an active fire, they come out and provide hydration to the firefighters, put some cooling chairs down, provide some snacks, things like that,” Fitzgerald said. “They certainly are a part of the fire department family. We use them to do training for our own personnel; they come out and act as victims.”
When Clovis Fire Department secured a grant two years ago to purchase smoke alarms for every mobile home in Clovis, Isolano needed help installing them. He turned to CERT.
“My CERT team came out with me and we installed smoke alarms in every mobile home in the city,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it by myself; it was 859 smoke alarms.”
The local CERT has also joined forces with Fresno’s CERT to provide support for firefighter training exercises, including a recent high-rise drill in downtown Fresno, Isolano said.
CERT volunteers also partnered with several CERTs from around the state to inform Porterville residents about drought aid they could receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“These people were showering in a parking lot in mobile showers for months and drinking bottled water,” Isolano said. “FEMA came out with these new programs and didn’t know how to get the word out because there’s a big language barrier down there. Plus, a lot of these people are kind of off the grid; they don’t have phones. So we went down there with a bunch of CERT organizations from around the state knocking door to door at more than 900 homes.”
When it came to the Spanish language barrier, local CERT volunteers turned to students at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Clovis.
“We have a CERT member who teaches at CART, and as part of biomedicine teaches the CERT curriculum at the teen level out there,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s graduating anywhere between 30 and 40 kids a year through the teen CERT program, and those kids come out and help just like the adults do.”
They were a big asset in Porterville, Isolano said.
“The kids were the only Spanish-speakers that we had, so we put one of the Spanish-speakers with each group and they loved it. They did a good thing and they get a sense of community service,” he said.
These opportunities are great for keeping volunteers engaged, Isolano said.
“The good part for us in here Clovis is that we don’t have any real big incidents,” he said. “But that makes it hard to maintain people’s interest, because they want to be involved; they want to come out and help.”
If a disaster, such as an earthquake, did occur here, first responders would go to the most devastated area, Isolano said, while CERT volunteers are trained to do things that are lower on the priority list.
“Our CERT volunteers are trained to go house to house in the outlying areas that may have just gotten some damage and knock on the door and see if there’s any elderly that need help,” he said. “They don’t necessarily help them, but they’ll report back to the trained personnel. They’ll turn off utilities if it’s needed, if the gas needs to be shut off in an area that’s been damaged.”
CERT is also trained to cordon off areas that are dangerous, Isolano said.
“The whole program stresses how not to become a victim and how to lessen the number of victims,” he said. “It makes a difference to have these people trained around the country.”
Fitzgerald said he is continually surprised by how many people want to help.
“I’m amazed at the volunteer spirit that they have, because not everybody has that,” he said. “They’re a great asset for the city. It helps offset some of the responsibilities that a paid person might have to do, so we can put our attentions elsewhere.”
The team also helps Clovis FD remain connected to the people it serves.
“It’s (Isolano) and I who handle public education,” Fitzgerald said. “Two people can’t handle a city of 108,000 people effectively. So we utilize our CERT volunteers when we can and they’re more than happy to help us.”
The next Clovis Emergency Response Team training class will be held in January or February. To register, call Clovis Fire Department at (559) 324-2200.