The Cambrian

Cambria citizens: Ready? Or not?

When Sheriff Ian Parkinson convenes his Task Force on Public Safety this summer, the Cambria Community Emergency Response Team — known by the acronym CERT — will be there as participants and as “our model for other CERT programs,” Parkinson said recently.

Through the task force, begun with $75,000 in seed money from PG&E, participants seek to make this county the most prepared in the country in terms of disaster preparedness and response.

Parkinson and others say it’s crucial that as many North Coast residents as possible sign up to become “CERT-ified” members of the emergency responder team, led by coordinator Norman Smyth — who also happens to be one of those who trained Parkinson in law enforcement. Smyth also trained Undersheriff Tim Olivas.

Smyth spent almost 30 years in law enforcement in Los Angeles, Palos Verdes, Newport Beach and Morro Bay. He took his CERT training in 2006, became Cambria’s coordinator in 2007 and trained last year in CERT program management.

The next series of CERT classes in Cambria starts at 6 p.m. Monday, March 11, and the 20-hour series continues on four other nights through Monday, March 25 (see below for details).

Parkinson said in a Feb. 11 phone interview that “Cambria CERT’s our ‘go to’ … they’ve done a tremendous job.” Even “if a disaster happens in Avila Beach, we want to call Cambria CERT.”

The sheriff said those volunteers are “extremely dedicated, extremely organized and basically our only real team out there that’s actually ready to respond to emergencies.”

What is CERT?

There are 336 CERT teams registered in California, according to The Federal Emergency Management Agency began promoting  CERT training nationally in 1994.

If a disastrous event overwhelms or delays professional first responders, CERT members can assist others, applying basic skills they learned during training.

Those skills can help save lives, Smyth said.

According to the website, “CERT is about readiness, people helping people, rescuer safety and doing the greatest good for the greatest number … a positive and realistic approach to emergency and disaster situations,” in which citizens will initially be on their own, and in which their actions can make a real difference.

With training and working with emergency-response agencies, “citizens can manage utilities and put out small fires; treat the ‘three killers’ by opening airways, controlling bleeding, and treating for shock; provide basic medical aid; search for and rescue victims safely; and organize themselves and spontaneous volunteers to be effective.”

Parkinson says Cambria’s CERT, launched by since-retired Fire Chief Bob Putney in November 2002, is unique.

Cambria CERT

Those who sign up for the training in March will join about 400 other North Coast residents who are CERT trained.

Smyth said, “Some take it for their own benefit,” so they’ll know what to do at home or work in case of fire, earthquake, tsunami, flood, wind damage or other emergency.

But in an extension that’s relatively unique to Cambria, approximately 130 CERT members form the core of an emergency-response team — dedicated, trained volunteers who train regularly and respond to incidents ranging from fires and tsunami threats to searches for everything from crime evidence and downed trees to lost community members.

Why sign up for CERT?

Jeri Farrell said of CERT training she and husband Terry Farrell took as area newcomers in the Cambria group’s very first class, “We felt it was necessary to learn as much as we could about the region, since we knew we could be far removed from immediate help, just due to logistics.”

There was a lot to learn. “We knew the basics, we thought. After all, I’m a nurse,” she wrote in an email interview. “What a wake-up call! We learned so much and with excellent teachers.

“We now know how to be prepared to help ourselves, and under the direction of the fire department, our immediate neighbors, as well as the community, if necessary.”

 But even the most dedicated volunteers can burn out eventually, Parkinson said. There’s an attrition rate, especially in a retirement community such as Cambria.

The active-response team needs to keep adding new trained members to replace those who can no longer participate.

That’s why filling the next class is important.

Exceptional CERT success “takes a dedicated leader and volunteers who stay involved,” Parkinson said, “and that’s what Cambria has.”

How CERT works

Say there’s a tsunami. “We’ll be hit in a number of coastal areas,” Parkinson said. “The most vulnerable areas will get the most resources,” in terms of law enforcement, fire protection and medical aid.

“Cambria is a coastal city, which makes it vulnerable. It’s also removed from the most populated areas of the county,” he said. “There are really limited ways into and out of Cambria, so if you lose those paths, you have to rely on the people there,” to handle the emergencies, because of the “potential isolation in the disaster.”

Parkinson said, “To have an organization like Cambria CERT to help is just critical for us … Theirs is a different mission, but with the same purpose.”

CERT volunteers are trained to form into effective neighborhood teams to assist others, and they’re skilled at working side-by-side with untrained volunteers — people who often turn out following a disaster because they want so much to help but don’t have the training to know where to go or what to do when they get there.

Parkinson wants more CERT teams in the county, all of which eventually will be at the core of his disaster preparedness task force.

To help train those other teams, he said, he needs help from Smyth and Cambria CERT members. “Cambria CERT … is what we need, to apply that model to other parts of the county, with the same training, the same commitment of volunteers that Cambria has put together.”

You can help

“If a major disaster occurred in Cambria right now, would you know how to take care of yourself and assist others? What if you dialed 9-1-1- and got a busy signal … or there was no dial tone at all?”

— Cambria Emergency Response Team flyer

Cambria Community Emergency Response Team signups continue through March 8 for five evening classes, each covering different topics but all of which teach individuals to be better prepared in the event of a major disaster by forming neighborhood teams to assist others.

A $10 fee pays for student manual and materials. There also is an option to buy a “CERT bag” that includes helmet, gloves, goggles and other emergency wares.

Classes start at 6 p.m. Mondays, March 11, 18 and 25, and Wednesdays, March 13 and 20. Students learn “how and when to turn off utilities; firefighting and medical skills; hazardous materials and terrorism awareness; light search-and-rescue techniques; and self reliance,” according to class materials.

Sign up or send enrollment fee by March 8 at Cambria Fire Department, 2850 Burton Drive, Cambria CA 93428, or call 927-6240 for details. Prepayment is required.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune