Civil defense makes a comeback in US
Nearly 2,000 teams of citizens are trained to provide quick aid in the event of an attack or natural disaster.
NEW YORK — The ongoing threat of a terrorist attack is spurring a civil-defense comeback reminiscent of the "duck and cover" drills of the early days of the cold war.
In communities from Los Angeles to Manhattan, citizens are being trained to help in the case of a terrorist bomb or natural disaster before police and firemen arrive. Prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, only 100 communities, mostly in earthquake and hurricane zones, had such citizen emergency response teams, or CERTs. Today there are almost 2,000.
The spread of this citizen training also reflects an ongoing transformation in thinking about emergency response: That citizens are not panic-prone problems but important resources whose first instinct in a crisis is to help others.
"As a result of 9/11, we're seeing a translation of CERT" from natural disasters to homeland security, says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "People in places that never saw themselves at risk before are getting involved in it and it's improving our overall ability to deal with all kinds of disasters."
The creation of CERTs was spurred by California earthquakes in the 1980s. Firefighters in Los Angeles realized that even if they did their best, they wouldn't get to many victims for at least 72 hours. A major quake in Mexico City in 1985 cemented their thinking. More than 800 people were rescued by neighbors, family, and friends during that crisis, but in the process, 100 of the citizen rescuers died because they had no training.
Hoping to prevent a similar tragedy in Los Angeles, firemen decided to train citizens to handle disasters in the safest and most effective way, at least until the professionals got there. The idea caught on in San Francisco and other cities near major faults. A decade later, it was picked up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and spread to hurricane- prone areas like Florida and the Gulf Coast.
On 9/11, most of the 100 or so CERT teams operated mostly in the West and South. Today, the greatest growth is taking place in New York and New Jersey - the two states most directly affected by the attack on the World Trade Center.
"It's grown up and down the East Coast," says Karen Marsh, the program director for Citizen Corps, the division of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for CERT training. "Certainly in urban areas, we now have to focus on terrorism because it is a higher perceived threat in industrial cities."
No one knows that better than the people in Battery Park City, a residential complex in lower Manhattan. It sits directly across from ground zero where the World Trade Center once stood. On the day of the attacks, they found themselves left to their own resources.
"That day, the firemen died and the police had to leave, so we were left on our own," says resident Barry Wolk. "We really got to see what a problem it was. Now with the CERT training, at least people are getting to feel more comfortable."
Mr. Wolk is part of a group of residents who created their own CERT team even before the Department of Homeland Security realized its potential in cities at risk for terrorism. The residents got access to a CERT manual, contacted some qualified trainers, and started organizing. When they sent out the first notice asking for volunteers, more than 100 people responded.
Sixty-three ended up graduating from the first training course, but volunteers keep coming. Now, the team consists of more than 150 people. They've each taken a nine-week, 27-hour course that covers things like medical triage, light search and rescue, fire suppression, and even animal rescue. They meet and have regular training exercises.
"We do everything, including after-action reports," says Sidney Baumgarten, chief of the CERT team, who is also a brigadier general in the New York State Guard. "We run it like a military operation."
At a recent training exercise, New York City's Commissioner of the Office of Emergency Management noted that the CERT at Battery Park City is now "a model for every team that we're trying to develop in the city."
New York now has 22 teams in different neighborhoods, and by the end of next year, hopes to have one in each of the city's 59 Community Boards.
Emergency response experts contend the biggest problem with CERT now is the lack of funding. This year, the Citizen Corps budget, of which CERT is only one part, was $15 million for the entire country, "an absolute trickle," in the words of Ms. Tierney.
Indeed, all that the Battery Park City team got from the federal program was 100 green emergency back packs, worth about $35 each.
On its own, the team has raised more than $10,000, which it has spent on items like radios, fire extinguishers, and emergency medical equipment.
"At this point, DHS is at the level of lip service in dealing with public preparedness," says Tierney. "Relative to the huge resources they have and the benefits that could be derived from involving the public, DHS has nowhere near taken advantage of the capabilities that are out there."