On Oct 26, 2010, I was so excited to start my first day of the Chicago CERT (Community Emergency Response Training) program. For some of you, this is old hat. Some of you even do this for a living. But for me, I’m still new to this. As I sat in the room at the central Chicago OEMC (Office of Emergency Management and Communications), with 30 other like-minded, but diverse volunteer members of my community, I had to hold my breath and reflect on the path that brought me here to this unlikely moment.
Like most of you, I started my relationship with CrisisCommons in response to Haiti. My day job is in IT as an Enterprise Architect for a large Property & Casualty Insurance Company in Chicago. We know something about catastrophe and hazards when we assess the risk of underwriting insurance policies. We know something about damage assessment when we address claims against property. But nothing, NOTHING, in my prior experience, personally or professionally, prepared me for what I would encounter through running four CrisisCamps in Chicago. I was just an IT girl from the Midwest with a day job, some tech and organizational skills (and some heart), who really knew nothing about the crisis and disaster response, but I was willing to help out where I could. Pretty much like most of us.
The Journey to CERT
What I didn’t expect is that this event would change my life, dipping my toes in to help Haiti introduced me to a world of community volunteer technologist that wanted to ‘do good’ and had heart like me, but who also wanted to ‘do cool’ and learn and try new things. I’ve been an active and observant core member of CrisisCommons ever since, and in the past 9 months, I’ve learned so much from this community. And one of the biggest things I learned is how little I know, and that I have so much to learn about crisis and disaster response if I really want to follow this path, as I am humbled by those around me. And while all this working on a global scale is good, I’ve always felt like I needed to find some balance by connecting to my local community too, that I wanted to be prepared to help if something were to happen here in the Midwest. This led me to find CERT.
For those not familiar with the CERT program, essentially this 20 hours of training will certify me with the necessary skills to work as a volunteer with my local emergency response agencies when a crisis or disaster occurs, as a force multiplier to their staff. Not unlike the surge-capacity model of a technology CrisisCamper, but instead of crowdsourcing mapping data and the like, in this model, I could actually be directing traffic, distributing supplies, helping evacuate people, working with at-risk members of the public, doing light search and rescue, etc. In a steady-state, I could be called to help educate others, participate in mock drills, or help in other preparedness activities, or I could continue my education in other more specialized project areas (like marine or aviation rescue, cpr, etc.). Not unlike a CrisisCommons steady state model. At the end of 7 classes and upon passing the field test, you get an awesome “disaster kit” that includes an official badge, a hardhat, flashlight, gloves, whistle, vest, mask, etc., so you can be ready to be deployed directly into the field. And while this is a very practical and hands-on curriculum, the experience I gain here I believe will provide me with a much stronger foundation and perspective in which to continue my CrisisCommons and CrisisCamp efforts, in analyzing project requirements, technology needs assessments, or in engaging in dialog with partners.
CERT is a US based program, although I’m sure that there are similar programs in other countries, and at least some of the training is actually similar to what you might receive as a volunteer in the Red Cross or Salvation Army. In the US, ‘CERT Chapters’ can provide the training, in Chicago, this is the Chicago CitizenCorps, part of the Chicago OEMC, although many suburbs also offer training. Basically, it’s all part of a larger federation of local, state, and national emergency response agencies, and the program is governed (in terms of material requirements, content, and some funding) through FEMA/Department of Homeland Security. Any citizen in good standing (they do a thorough background check) can participate, and it’s free. I would encourage many of you to seek this out and signup, if, you know, you are into that kind of thing (you know who you are). There are even some online courses. This will make you truly a disaster geek.
The CERT Class
In the first class, I learned about how emergency management operations works in Chicago: a centrally coordinated command structure bringing together a bunch of government and non-government agencies, each with clear understanding of each other’s operational procedures, and roles and accountabilities, in response to unexpected disruptive events and full out emergencies. OEMC is pretty much the operational connector between groups, like CrisisCommons aspires for technology, and their own procedures often address gaps in those of others. How they all operate together is pretty much a set of predetermined operating procedures (not figured out in the disaster), that are continually refined with after-action-reports. They are an information driven organization, flows of information from traffic, websites, blue-light cameras, radio, news, 911 and 311 dispatch, weather, etc., are constantly monitored (both manually and in automated ways) within a central command room, both for event discovery and management. They information streams are both inbound and outbound, in that they are also an information provider, to other agencies, as well as the community. It’s all very much a hub-and-spoke operations, and leverages low tech solutions, such as PAWS (Public Alert Warning System), which is a WW2 siren system installed along Lake Michigan, and some higher-tech solutions such as AlertChicago, which allows citizens to register for types of alerts, via voice mails, text messages, or emails. There is much to be learned about how these models of operations work, how the technology works (or doesn’t), how the community models work. I was beginning to feel connected to how I might be able to plug-in to my community.
We almost didn’t have the first class, as Chicago, the Windy city, experienced a ‘weather’ event yesterday, in that we had 60 mile an hour winds, and our instructors had warned us. Wind is not something we take lightly here, and it can be pretty damaging, but in this case damage was not wide spread, and so the class continued. We learned that in the Midwest, the focus of disaster preparedness is around Hazardous Materials, Thunderstorms, Tornados, Floods, Heat, Fire, Winter Storms, Terrorism-Violence, and Earthquakes. Yes, Earthquakes. One of the biggest fault lines in the country is the New Madrid fault in Missouri, and in the 1812, an 8.0 earthquake struck and caused the mighty Mississippi river to flow backwards for ½ a day, imagine the power. The potential damage range of this single fault is bigger than the entire state of California (something about the bedrock carrying the signal farther). In April of 2011, there will be an 8-state earthquake response exercise called ‘Shakeup the Midwest’, that will be a mock simulation of a response effort if a big quake hit (both online, and with real time volunteers across 8 states). Although Chicago itself wouldn’t expect too much physical damage, the potential influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from devastated Southern Illinois, stuck between two rivers, would certainly be where Chicago would help. I’m sure that CrisisCommons folk will want to participate (smile) in this mock drill.
I will post some more nuggets and lessons as the class continues. Stay tuned for Part 2!! (Cross posted on MookyTech.com)
Deborah Shaddon has been a core member of CrisisCommons since January, 2010.