I recently completed the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Level I training given by the Chesterfield County, VA Emergency Management Department and wanted to share my experience. In a nutshell it was fantastic.

The teachers were very knowledgeable and engaging and I learned a lot. I was hesitant at first because of the three and a half-hour session twice a week because I struggle to last that long in a seat, but it was not an issue. In this post I want to talk about why the CERT is important, how they work and some highlights of what I learned in the class.

Why CERT is Important

When a catastrophic disaster with mass casualties occurs, the government’s resources are going to be spread thin. Depending on the damage, it could be hours or days before help arrives. If the event is widespread:

  • Police will only be able to address incidents of grave public danger
  • The Fire Department will only be able to respond to major fires
  • Emergency Response Teams can only respond to life threating injuries

This is where CERT comes in. The CERT volunteers will not be able to put out large fires, quell violence or act as an emergency room but they will be able to save a lot of people while waiting on the professionals to arrive. With the documentation they create, it provides a ton of value when the emergency services arrive on the scene. By the time help arrives, several lives could be saved with the initial triage and the medical attention that was given.

The CERT training teaches basic skills for doing triage, patient assessment, how to manage a medical treatment area and light search and rescue technics.

CERT training also gives members an overview of Disaster Preparedness for their own family and encourages them to educate other family members, friends and neighbors to do the same. Since most people do not prepare, it is thought that 80% of people in your neighborhood are going to rely on their neighbors in a disaster situation. That is a very good reason to help educate people about disasters and emergencies.

How does CERT Work?

In a disaster, CERT members are “activated” by the governing organization such as the Emergency Management Department and asked if they can respond to an event in their community. Upon arriving at the scene an experienced CERT member becomes the Incident Commander and starts assessing the incident, determining a strategy, forming teams to deploy and starts documenting all of the activities. 

CERT manages a response based on FEMA’s Incident Command System which is simple but impressive. It breaks the work into:

  • Operations – Fire Suppression, Search and Rescue and Medial Treatment
  • Logistics – Staging personnel, communications and worker rehabilitation
  • Planning – Situation Unit, taking notes, gathering information and creating documentation

The Incident Commander will appoint team leaders for the different jobs to report up the chain and ensures that only 3 to 7 people report to a team lead.  CERT has developed forms that help document the incident including what team a member is in, assessment of damage to structure and tracking injured people. When professional emergency services arrive on the scene, the Incident Command briefs them on what is going on and what has happened so far. At this point, depending on resources, the CERT members may continue to assist in their roles if needed.

Important Things I Learned

There was a lot of important things that I learned and it is too much for a single blog post but I thought I would share some things that really stuck out to me.

Incident Command

The concept of Incident Command was new to me and a bit overwhelming when we practiced this a couple of times. I have great appreciation for the development of this framework and know that I have a lot to learn before I could effectively work as an Incident Commander or a team lead.


Fire becomes a problem much faster than you think. We watched a couple of videos on controlled fires and I was amazed how hot it can get in a short amount of time. One of the example videos showed a Christmas tree catching fire. The living room was totally inflamed in a little over 3 minutes and the temperature was reaching over 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. At 250 degrees your lungs will burn.

It was also interesting to learn that some adults and children may sleep right through a fire alarm. Hard to imaging but true. The suggestion was that you need to have trial runs by setting off the alarm and waking your children up so they become acclimated to the emergency.

Another important thing that I learned was to keep the bedroom doors closed at night. Keeping the doors closed makes a huge difference by keeping smoke and heat out and can give people more time to escape out of a window.


To me, a very hard thing to swallow was the 30 second rule in triage. When you are on a search and rescue team and deploy into an area or building to find people, your only take 30 seconds to assess someone’s condition so that you can tag them as being one of the following:

  • Green – May have injuries but can walk out on their own.
  • Yellow – Has an injury or medical needs but is not life threating
  • Red – Injuries are severe and life threating and need to be addressed first
  • Black – Deceased or soon to be

So even though you may find someone that is not breathing and might possibly be saved with CPR, you don’t. You attempt to clear the airway a couple of times and then move on. WOW! The deal is that in CERT, you want to provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people. If you try and give CPR to someone that MIGHT save their life, others could be bleeding out and you could have saved them by applying a tourniquet in the 30 seconds that you have.

Deaths in a Disaster

The training categorized deaths in a disaster in three phases.

  • Phase I – Immediate deaths caused by the event
  • Phase II – Deaths within several hours after an incident, mainly due to excessive bleeding
  • Phase III – Deaths within several days or weeks usually due to infections.

The statistic they gave was that 40% of deaths after a disaster could have been prevented with minor interventions such as stopping bleeding and getting antibiotics to treat infections.

Medical Treatment

The Medical components of the training included some hands-on practice but there was a lot of information discussed that really overwhelmed me. I can clean a wound and apply bandages, apply a tourniquet and maybe could do CPR (it has been a while since my training) but that is not near enough to be really helpful in a mass causality event. I will be taking the Stop the Bleed class this coming week and am going to schedule a refresher CPR/First Aid class as soon as I can. The biggest take away for me was that I am woefully under educated on medical treatment.


Since most people don’t prepare adequately and will rely on their neighbors, it is a really good idea to have CERT volunteers in your neighborhood. CERT will make a huge difference in saving lives.

If you are not involved in CERT, please check out the training available in your county or city and sign up. It is well worth your time and you may save a life one day. If you haven’t taken CPR/First Aid training please take that as well.  

A good resource for further knowledge on medical treatment in a disaster is Joe and Amy Alton’s The Ultimate Survival Medicine Guide: Emergency Preparedness for ANY Disaster. It is an excellent resource for learning more about providing medical help in a disaster situation.

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Have a blessed day!

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  • Andrew Parks

    This is a great article! I can proudly say that I am a member of the Walker County, Georgia CERT. I love the training and sense of self confidence that it brings to know I can help out my community if disaster strikes.

  • Max Stotto

    I commend your community spirit however, my advice would be to as well as the equipment required for saving the lives of others that you also carry a firearm, not only for your own protection but also for those in your care, the unfortunate reality is that within any disaster zone there will be elements of society that will not welcome your humanitarian intervention and as you mention the regular authorities may be spread too thinly to provide a timely response.

    • Chip Feck

      I would absolutely agree Max! You don’t want to believe that people would take advantage of a disaster situation but it happens a lot. Thanks for contributing.

  • James Herendeen

    My experience has been that the police and firefighters don’t want to be bothered with Cert. They feel that they are in the way and treat them with disdain. The training is good but acceptance is another thing.

    • Chip Feck

      Our instructor talked about that. I think it is easy for some folks to get a big head and get in the way but here in Chesterfield County VA and in the surrounding counties they have embraced the help and are 100% behind it. Thanks for contributing.

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