Want to help during an emergency? Training program puts civilians on the front lines

Dan Aderholt navigates a dark, hazey warehouse by the light of his headlamp. “Sacramento Fire. If you can hear my voice, come to me,” he calls twice. No response both times. A few moments later, he stops by a cluster of circular saws.

“We’ve got a victim,” he says.

The “victim” is a paint-splattered plastic dummy torso bolted onto a wooden stake. The haze surrounding Aderholt is produced by a smoke machine hissing between two traffic cones several yards away. It’s meant to simulate dust and debris. The scenario is a 7.7-magnitude earthquake.

This is a March 16 graduation exercise for members of the public at a 17,000-square-foot North Sacramento indoor training space normally used by law enforcement. Aderholt, a homeless rights activist, completed his training through a Community Emergency Response Team program affiliated with the Sacramento Fire Department. He spent more than 30 hours from late February to mid-March learning skills such as assessing a disaster scene, light search and rescue and recognizing when a patient is in shock.

Of the roughly 2,800 Federal Emergency Management Agency-recognized CERT programs nationwide, more than 400 are administered in California through California Volunteers, a program in the Governor’s Office.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced funding to grow CERT’s California presence as the state braces for further impacts from climate change.

As part of his March 22 declaration of statewide emergency due to wildfire risk, Newsom announced a $50 million California For All Emergency Preparedness Campaign that includes money for CERT and a similar program called Listos, which is Spanish for “ready.” The funding is intended to expand the programs into uncovered areas deemed vulnerable by the state Office of Emergency Services, and to train people from more diverse backgrounds.

Rising average global temperatures mean California is hotter and drier for longer periods, meaning more dead trees and foliage creating greater risk for wildfire. Recent years have seen some of the most devastating fires in California’s history. November’s Camp Fire was the most deadly, razing the town of Paradise and killing 85 people.

“There is a direct link between climate change and the mission to better prepare our communities,” said state Chief Service Officer Karen Baker, who leads California Volunteers.

Disaster driving interest

Sacramento CERT, the program Aderholt enrolled in, has grown steadily in recent years. The program now graduates around 80 people a year, according to coordinating volunteer Rob Ross, who in his day job trains Department of Toxic Substance Control employees on how to respond in a disaster. When Ross started as a volunteer instructor eight years ago, around 60 people were graduating annually from its basic “Level 3” class.

Ross attributes growth in part to modifications such as making the class more hands-on. But there’s another factor to growth as well: After major disasters, the program sees a bump in web traffic and volunteer applications, he said.

“I think climate change drives it but not in the aspect of ‘I wanna help with climate change.’ It’s more the symptoms of climate change,” he said, referencing disasters that are fueled by climate change.

Members of the most-recent class wrote in their applications that after witnessing recent California fires, they wanted skills to respond the next time disaster hit. Two volunteers simply wrote “Camp Fire” in response to an application question asking about what drew them to CERT. One saw a family member lose their home to fire.

Maria Damos, 28, was working as a camp counselor at Eagle Lake in Lassen County last summer when the Whaleback Fire broke out. The experience motivated her to enroll in CERT.

“When you’re actually standing in the middle of it or watching it approach your site, it can be eye-opening,” she said. While climate change was not on her mind when she signed up, “The fires are getting worse and bigger,” she added.

Wendy Wen, 50, an accountant, decided she wanted to learn disaster response skills after witnessing the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. The nonprofit she worked for at the time had gone to provide free replacement eye glasses to firefighters and police officers who needed them.

“We cannot control climate change,” but it’s possible to learn how to respond to disasters in which climate change plays a role, she said.

For Aderholt, 49, a homeless rights activist, climate change was the explicit reason he sought training.

“We’re going to have fires – that’s inevitable. People are going to have heat strokes. People with asthma are going to have respiratory problems,” he said, adding, “People don’t know what they’re going to be in for.”

A need for diversity

While interest and retention is strong, Ross said Sacramento CERT is too white and English language-centric. He wants to recruit volunteers from immigrant communities and and who have different language capabilities.

“We really need to start reaching out to these communities,” he said.

Cultural and linguistic barriers can make it harder to help. One summer, CERT volunteers conducted wellness checks on residents of a largely Eastern European, non-English speaking senior community where the air conditioner had broken. Rooms on upper floors were reaching temperatures in the 90s, said Ross. Without the help of maintenance staff whom residents knew and trusted, he doesn’t think volunteers would have been able to enter apartments.

New state funding aims to help disaster preparedness training reach more diverse communities. Central to the effort is Listos, which is based on CERT’s curriculum but covers fewer topics and in less time and is primarily taught in Spanish. Whereas CERT includes training on how to respond as teams to larger disasters, Listos focuses on preparation of the family and home. Founded in Santa Barbara in 2010, Listos has about 30 programs across California.

Branding makes Listos more appealing to immigrant communities that might not initially trust CERT enough to seek its training, said Irma Herrera, the Listos coordinating volunteer for San Bernardino County. She also volunteers as a CERT instructor.

Whereas CERT is a bureaucratic-sounding acronym, Listos is a word Spanish speakers recognize and the program’s logo features the silhouette of a family holding hands, Herrera said. The green of some CERT uniforms evokes U.S. Customs and Border Protection uniforms.

“When you see it in the different eyes, you’re like ‘Oh’,” she said.

Introducing communities to Listos can entice people to extend their training into CERT, she said. She said Listos is popular and fills a great need. The first class she taught in Fontana had seven students, including her mother. The second class had 150 students after her mom told their pastor about it.

“The need that I see for the Latino community, they’re so hungry for emergency preparedness, for classes in their own language,” said Herrera.

Listos has been translated into Armenian and California Volunteers plans to have it translated into other languages, said Baker. She said CERT programs can partner with Listos to build relationships with underrepresented communities.

An active program

More frequent disasters keep volunteers involved, said Sacramento CERT instructor Scott Greene. Ross said the local program sent 20 members to aid responders at the Camp Fire in November. There the volunteers transported and cared for found animals. In addition to the Camp Fire, members responded in 2015 to the Valley Fire in Lake County and in 2013 to the Rim Fire in Stanislaus National Forest.

“The frequency of disasters that have been happening makes it easier for us to retain people,” said Greene. “They use these skills.”

During a debrief meeting following graduation exercises at the training facility in North Sacramento, new CERT member Jason Ortiz asked if the next-level CERT course will wrap up in time for fire season. Ortiz, 31, has a bachelor’s in emergency management; he installed free clean water dispensing stations in Paradise through his employer after the Camp Fire.

Level 2, slated to run through April, is required for volunteers who want to deploy with Sacramento CERT to emergencies outside Sacramento city limits. Of the roughly 1,600 people Sacramento CERT has trained since 2003, only a small proportion have completed Level 2, according to Ross.

“Well fire season is all year long now,” Ross told Ortiz. But he doesn’t expect deployment in April, “knock on wood.”

Tess Townsend has written for Recode and Inc. and completed the CERT program herself in March. She can be reached at townsendtess@gmail.com.