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Main story: Local residents learn how to help save lives during natural disaster

CERT class teaches basics of emergency preparedness

Published in the November 23- December 6, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Photo by Marty Cheek A Morgan Hill CERT student checks on a volunteer "victim" for injuries in a major earthquake emergency simulation.

Photo by Marty Cheek
A Morgan Hill CERT student checks on a volunteer “victim” for injuries in a major earthquake emergency simulation.

A natural disaster can overwhelm professional first responders if the damage is spread across a wide region. If this situation should ever befall the South Valley, trained volunteers from the Morgan Hill and Gilroy Community Emergency Response Teams will help minimize loss of life and injury.

To demonstrate the emergency skills they learned in recent months, 13 students of the Morgan Hill CERT class and seven members of the Gilroy CERT class conducted a mock earthquake search and rescue final exam Nov. 12 at the CERT mobilization center located near Morgan Hill’s Community Park.

The CERT team serving Morgan Hill falls under the direction of the city’s Office of Emergency Services. It is directed by the special operations commander of the police department. The Morgan Hill CERT provides event monitoring and first aid at most city events, disaster preparedness training for Morgan Hill residents, response to disasters such as the city-wide flooding in January 2008, controlling helicopter landing zones for CalStar at special events and traffic control at city functions to assist police resources. The final exam that the Gilroy and Morgan Hill CERT students participated in involved the aftermath of a major earthquake where community residents, including a number of local Boy Scout members, played victims in various states of injury or shock.

“We’re the responders when the other first responders are overwhelmed,” said CERT volunteer Larry Carr, a retired commercial airline pilot who joined the program three years ago. “With CERT, the first thing you take care of is yourself, then your family, then you take care of neighbors. Then after that’s all taken care of you come and join the CERT team and go into the community to help.”

All CERT members are unpaid volunteers, he said.

Photo by Marty Cheek Morgan Hill CERT student Kristyn Bell Morin inspects a volunteer "victim" for injuries in a simulation of an earthquake emergency.

Photo by Marty Cheek
Morgan Hill CERT student Kristyn Bell Morin inspects a volunteer “victim” for injuries in a simulation of an earthquake emergency.

“We all do this on our own time and our own dime when you talk about the equipment to buy,” he said. “It’s free to join and the training is free, but any individual expenses as far as the gear that you wear, that is left up to the individuals. However, we do have a cache of gear here for people who don’t have their own.”

Jennifer Ponce, the emergency services coordinator for the Office of Emergency Services for Morgan Hill, said the South County region has coordinated its CERT training so the region will have plenty of volunteers prepared to help those in need during a natural disaster or other incident.

“One of the nice things about South Santa Clara County is we really are a team down here with Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Martin,” she said.

After the students finish their final exam scenario and take a written test, the class has a celebration in which those who pass take a loyalty oath given by the city clerk so that they can serve as CERT volunteers during an emergency.

“We do (the oath) upfront in Morgan Hill because if there is a disaster, we don’t have to take time to swear people in,” Ponce said. “Other cities do it on the spot in a disaster, so I think we’re ahead of the curve. The cool thing about Morgan Hill is we use our CERT members a lot.”

A few years ago, CERT members were called out when a vehicle was stolen from the St. Catherine’s Church parking lot with a baby in the back seat, she said.

“We called out our CERT members to be the eyes and ears because we had a license plate,” she said. “We’ve also had (volunteers) walk through the Butterfield channel looking for evidence, so they are trained in how to do an evidence check. We’ve had them secure the perimeter of a crime. We’ve had them deliver sand bags to elderly people who are not able to psychically fill them themselves.”

If a major emergency such as a devastating earthquake hits the region, the CERT volunteers come to the mobilization center. The volunteers fall under the fire rescue branch of the city in an emergency. Fire department officials will give them ham radios and tell them where to do damage assessment, and then they go out and report back in. Each city in Santa Clara County has a CERT program.

Residents 14 years and older can go through the training, Ponce said. The county has also conducted Teen CERT programs at St. Catherine’s School and Christopher High School, she said.

Amy Santamaria, a Morgan Hill CERT volunteer, went through the program years ago and stays involved in the testing of the students at the emergency scenarios, giving them the written test.

“Everybody should be able to take care of themselves if and when the ‘big one’ happens,” she said. “It’s up to CERT to train as many people as possible to do that — that’s the bottom-line of what we do.”

Sam Palmisano, a Gilroy resident, was a ham radio operator with Gilroy Emergency Services when he met Colin Tanner, the CERT leader for Gilroy, and became interested in joining. He went through the extended weekend CERT training which is three days of training plus a fourth day for the mock earthquake emergency testing.

“It was really accelerated. We got a lot of great information from instructors and support staff. I did it in Gilroy,” he said. “It’s really valuable to be able to prepare yourself and your family and realize what’s going to be involved in coping with a natural disaster. It’s very enriching to have knowledge to be able to help your family and also to help serve the community.”

Morgan Hill resident Cappy Myers runs the emergency response team for Amazon at the online retail corporation’s Sunnyvale site.

“I realized I didn’t want to just talk the talk but also walk the walk so I joined the program,” he said. “I’m actually taking this back to Amazon to create a business CERT program for the business park that has about 20,000 people.”

The training focuses students to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people during an emergency, he said.

“It’s not hard but it’s in-depth and covers about everything you need to know,” he said.