Wearing goggles and a bright green vest, Brenda Burke approached the 3-foot-tall flame in a crouched position, holding a fire extinguisher at the ready.
The flame radiated heat in the cool morning air, its reflection dancing across Ms. Burke’s goggles. She got within a few feet of the flame and pressed the lever on the extinguisher, sweeping the hose back and forth until the retardant snuffed out the fire.
“Clear – coming out!” Ms. Burke yelled, and began inching away from the pluming smoke.
The fire wasn’t real – at least, it wasn’t a true emergency.
It was started in the parking lot of Napa Valley College in California as part of a final test for the county’s most recent class of volunteer emergency responders, who are themselves part of a growing movement across the United States. As climate change brings ever more costly and deadly natural disasters, emergency response experts say deploying thousands of trained civilians will ease the pressure on the professionals during the chaos of an earthquake, a wildfire, a flood, or a blizzard.
Later in the training day’s final assessment, the Napa volunteers would practice first aid and medical triage, as well as conduct a mock search and rescue effort in a darkened, cluttered storage facility.
Napa County is part of the federal CERT program, begun 25 years ago by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and administered in 2,800 localities across the country. CERT, which stands for Community Emergency Response Teams, has trained some 600,000 volunteers nationwide. It launched in response to the threat of earthquakes in cities like Los Angeles, but it soon found wider application. And in California, the teams continue to play a prominent role in responding to the wildfires that have swept through the state in recent years.
CERT volunteers are expected to supplement, not supplant, professional emergency responders. That said, a number of CERT programs around the country have specialized civilian response teams – such as animal rescuers and snowmobile drivers – who provide services typically not offered by local, state, or federal responders.
Kenneth Arnold, the lead instructor with the Napa Valley CERT program and the police chief for Napa Valley College, said the program is the first opportunity many volunteers have to practice basic emergency response skills, such as using a fire extinguisher or assessing basic injuries.
That was the case for Burke, who took two turns during the fire extinguisher exercise – during her first attempt, feeling a bit apprehensive, she didn’t step close enough to extinguish the flame.
The exercise carried a reminder of why Burke was taking the class. Last year, her home stood in the path of the raging Atlas Fire. Weeks after the fire burned out, she returned to her neighborhood, hoping to find her home intact.
“I only found some coins from one of my father’s collections,” Burke said. “That was it – everything else was ashes.”
On Sept. 19, 1985, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Mexico City, collapsing more than 400 buildings and killing thousands of people.
Immediately following the quake, people poured into the streets, trying to extricate trapped civilians and attend to wounded victims.
Volunteers saved an estimated 700 lives following the natural disaster, said Natalie Enclade, director of the individual and community preparedness division at FEMA.
But their lack of training also led them into dangerous situations. An estimated 100 volunteers died trying to save others, Ms. Enclade said.
Heeding the lessons of the Mexico City earthquake, the city of Los Angeles – another earthquake-prone metropolis – developed an emergency response training program for civilians.
“They recognized that citizens would likely be on their own during an emergency disaster – at least at first,” Enclade said.
Disasters throughout California in the following years encouraged other agencies to adopt similar programs.
In 1989, for example, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through the Santa Cruz mountains about 60 miles south of the Bay Area, causing significant damage in San Francisco, including in the heavily populated and tourist-filled Marina District. As in Mexico City years earlier, volunteers – many untrained – surged outside to help.
In 1993 – after other states began developing their own local programs – FEMA took notice and created the federal CERT program and a common curriculum.
Over the past 25 years, CERT programs have grown from a handful to about 2,800 nationwide.
CERT programs hinge on states’ good Samaritan laws, which guarantee basic legal protections for individuals assisting a person – or animal – with an injury or in danger. FEMA trains CERT program leaders, covering some of the costs for travel to Emmitsburg, Md., where the Emergency Management Institute is located.
Although local agencies can allocate federal grant dollars to CERT programs, FEMA doesn’t directly fund them. That means programs often operate on a shoestring budget.
Napa County, for example, allocates about $6,700 for the Napa Valley CERT program – barely enough to cover supplies, volunteer kits, and the couple hundred dollars that several administrators receive for teaching the course.
“My personal wish would be that lawmakers realize they have a gold mine here and throw some more dollars behind it,” said Mr. Arnold with Napa Valley CERT.
A full-time – or even part-time – county employee devoted to CERT and volunteer emergency response, Arnold said, would be a substantial boost to the program.
Despite the limited funding, CERT volunteers have proven to be a valuable resource in recent disasters. After hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving more than a million residents without power, for example, CERT volunteers – the majority of whom lived on the island – were on the ground providing aid and clearing streets.
During hurricane Harvey last year, Texas's Harris County CERT program was involved in more than a hundred water rescues and staffed shelters for displaced survivors in the Houston area. Harris County has one of the largest CERT programs in the country, with more than 34,000 trained volunteers, according to county emergency management coordinator Mark Sloan.
“Some were using the boats in their driveway to rescue people,” Mr. Sloan said. “That’s what we do when our first responder community is overwhelmed … help our neighborhood and our community survive the event.”
“We’re trying to institutionalize preparedness,” Sloan said. “We average a declared disaster every nine months. So people in this area understand the ongoing threat of emergencies.”
And in California, where the CERT program first started, volunteers have played a key role in responding to wildfires in recent years, staffing shelters, and setting up donation centers. During last year’s Atlas Fire in Napa County, CERT volunteers set up a ham radio communication bridge to coordinate among shelters and with emergency professionals at the incident command center.
CERT volunteers are intended to serve as “multipliers” in emergency response – not substitutes for the services delivered by professional responders, Enclade said. That means they receive basic training on disaster preparedness, first aid, medical triage, and light search and rescue.
Basic first aid includes treating burns, sprains, broken bones, wounds, and other common injuries during emergencies. Medical triage requires volunteers to quickly assess the injuries of victims and determine who has the most urgent need for care.
The basic CERT curriculum is meant to ensure volunteer teams from different geographic areas can work cohesively and the handoff to professional emergency responders goes smoothly. But some CERT programs offer specialized training geared toward a region’s needs.
Burleigh County in North Dakota, for example, created a snowmobile team in 2012 that traverses the 1,650-square-mile county during snow storms, searching for stranded vehicles. The team also helps transport doctors and medical professionals to hospitals.
Some CERT programs offer training for handling and rescuing animals.
Burke, the Napa resident who lost her home in the Atlas Fire, joined the Napa Valley animal rescue program – dubbed Community Animal Response Team, or CART – in addition to the regular CERT program. Participating in CART was a logical choice for Burke. Her day job is manager of strategic partnerships and community outreach for the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch in Napa County, an animal rescue, sanctuary, and advocacy organization.
She’s learning how to handle animals from domestic pets to livestock during emergencies.
“There are specific types of strappings, for example, for large animals,” Burke said. “So we could get a 400-pound pig or a 1,000-pound horse out of harm’s way.”
With close to 20 wildfires currently burning hundreds of thousands of acres across California this year, Burke may need to put the skills she’s learned to use sooner rather than later.
“When you have large disasters, you can’t always rely on the government to do everything – sometimes, we get spread thin,” said Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann. “People have to be prepared to help themselves and their community."
This story was reported by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.