This is a human interest story.  It’s the story of Big Island humans who are interested in helping their neighbors when they’re suffering in an island emergency: a hurricane, say, or an earthquake, fire, flood, or volcanic eruption, causing damage to property, and re-arranging lives.

CERT stands for “Community Emergency Response Team.”  In their lime green hard-hats, reflective vests, and backpacks, team members look so professional you’d think they were being paid.  But they’re not. They’re all volunteers who’ve taken the time to be trained by the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency to warn citizens of oncoming potential emergencies, how to prepare for them, and to assist first responders in any disaster.

Their training, conducted by Hawaii County Fire personnel, which takes place over four Saturdays, teaches important communication skills; teamwork objectives; what to carry in a backpack to an emergency situation; how to assess and report damage during physical searches of people’s homes and land; how to shut off utilities (gas, water, electric); light search and rescue, including how to safely remove a victim from a structure or vehicle; how to operate a fire extinguisher; water purification; and how to set up a “rehab” which is an area for first responders to take off their heavy equipment, be medically evaluated, get refreshed and relax, or, if necessary, be evacuated by ambulance.  

According to Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrative Officer Bill Hanson, the idea of CERT began after 9/11, when people from all over the country and the world went to New York City “to help”.  President Bush realized they could put themselves and others in danger. He set up a training program, from which CERT has evolved.

One issue is how to notify CERT members when electricity and phones aren’t working.  The program requires at least two licensed HAM radio operators on every team, and CERT training includes how to become one.  Currently, CERT has the most licensed and equipped members, with 200 qualified.

When CERT teams go door to door to warn neighbors of possible danger or to assist in an emergency, they travel in marked county vehicles driven by county workers.  This gives them the authenticity they need if they’re going to go into people’s homes to assess damages or recommend actions for residents to take. CERT performs an important service doing damage assessment which is recorded and reported promptly by Civil Defense to the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) in order for neighbors to qualify for financial relief. 

How many hours do CERT workers work?  It’s voluntary. Some people take the training (which is free) to learn how to protect their own families and homes with no other involvement.  But, according to Hawaii County CERT Coordinator Patti Pinto, dedicated volunteers put in 5,000 hours during the Kilauea eruptions, going door to door before and after the disaster, assessing and reporting homes which were damaged or destroyed, manning stations to help keep looters out of neighborhoods by identifying legitimate home owners or renters who wanted to get past police roadblocks to get back to homes which they’d been told to evacuate.

When there are no emergencies for Civil Defense to deal with, they put on Preparation Fairs in various communities to get the public together with reps from Fire, Police, Civil Air Patrol, Red Cross, Humane Society, Food Bank, State Highways, Public Works, Hele-on, water supply, HELCO, and more, to inform and educate.  CERT teams assist in booths, and as survey takers and event guides.

Available from Civil Defense (phone 935-0031) is Project 360, The Ohana Emergency Plan. This is a pamphlet which helps a family prepare for an emergency, know how to contact each other, where to meet, where to shelter, what essential documents to preserve and carry on a flash drive.  It suggests actions for property and vehicle preparedness, a shopping list of non-perishable food for family and pets, what to keep in a preparedness kit (from cash to jumper cables), what goes into a first aid kit, a family go-bag, a personal go-bag, a baby go-bag, a pet go-bag, and a senior go-bag.  Each family’s grab and go will differ according to their needs, but there’s a world of ideas in the Ohana Emergency Plan pamphlet which has been written by people who know what they’re talking about.

Taking this a step further, CERT Coordinator Patti Pinto wants island communities to each have their own emergency plan.  Volcano, Hawaiian Paradise Park, and Fern Acres already have plans in place. Ms. Pinto wants to see this expand.

The aim of CERT is to “do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”  If this sounds like an organization you’d want to be a part of, go to https://www.hawaiicert.org for their website, or contact Bill Hanson at (808) 935-0031, or email hawaiicert@gmail.com.  And when you do, tell them Big Island Pulse sent you.

Lynne Farr is the author of Off The Grid Without A Paddle, Off The Grid And Over The Hill, and Off The Grid What’s Cookin’?, humorous books about Big Island life.  Find them at Basically Books in Hilo, Volcano Garden Arts, Amazon.com, or the Hawaii State Library System.

Photos courtesy Bill Hanson


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