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University of Florida

UF Expert Says With Hurricane Season Approaching, Citizen Response Teams Need Volunteers

Topic(s): Disaster Preparedness

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Southern states most often wracked by hurricanes are ahead of the nation when it comes to preparing citizens to help in a disaster, but there are still plenty of volunteer gaps that need to be filled, a University of Florida researcher says.

And with hurricane season beginning Sunday, there’s no better time for residents to volunteer for disaster teams in their area, said Mark Brennan, a rural sociologist with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who has written extensively on volunteerism.

“The day something bad happens isn’t the day to start preparing for it,” Brennan said.

One way citizens can help is by joining or starting a local Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, part of Citizen Corps and made available nationally in 1993 through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The first CERT began in California in 1985, a grassroots response to earthquakes and other natural disasters. The program, which trains ordinary citizens in disaster response, has since grown exponentially. As of last September, there were 2,738 teams across the United States. But even with that kind of growth, only about 35 percent of the counties in FEMA’s 11-state, southernmost region have one or more CERTs.

Although that’s considerably higher than most FEMA regions, it still leaves a lot of turf unprotected, Brennan said.

“There’s a pretty important need in rural places for these,” he said. “Rural areas are often lacking in all kinds of social support, and in a disaster, government responders can be spread way too thin. So this kind of local capacity building can free up valuable minutes and hours that count most.”

In January 2002, Citizen Corps and other agencies were brought under the Department of Homeland Security in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as a way to coordinate volunteer efforts.

According to the Citizen Corps Web site, Florida’s CERTs vary widely, depending on where they are and where their volunteers live. There are Christian teams, teams closely tied to and funded at least partly by fire departments, local governments, neighborhoods or schools. They range from a handful of volunteers to hundreds.

One group of French-Canadian, part-time Okeechobee County residents started a team to protect their mobile home park. A University of Miami CERT has students who go door to door in emergencies delivering bottled water and information. And in Hillsborough County’s Sun City Center retirement community, team members keep watch over 16,000 residents and have aided firefighters on numerous calls.

Frank Barner, a former upstate New York police officer, joined the Naples CERT after being recruited by a co-worker, and has been on it four years. And although the team hasn’t had to respond to any actual disasters, he said mock disaster drills do a great job preparing even the least experienced to calmly respond to emergencies.

“People in Florida don’t pay that much attention to these teams, but they should,” he said. “It’s really an extensive training program.”

One bright side to hurricane-heavy seasons is that many CERTs become better coordinated and efficient in their efforts and response times, Brennan said.

When storms were hitting with frequency in 2004 and 2005, the teams moved with precision because they’d had so many chances to put their training into practice, Brennan said. That gets harder with a less intense hurricane season.

Brennan suggests that CERTs broaden their mission beyond hurricanes. Some of them have done just that, responding to “disasters” of many forms, such as wildfires, tornadoes or drought. They can also become more active year-round, pitching in to help their communities deal with less urgent situations.

“It’s so important that this community capacity building is always going on, that we’re always preparing for the next thing, whatever it may be,” he said. “Now would be a good time to start.”

To learn about the CERT program or find a team near you: http://www.citizencorps.gov/cert/about.shtm

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