Chesterfield CERT members provide first aid to a "patient" during a training exercise.
Spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Florence, multiple tornadoes touched down in Chesterfield in September 2018, resulting in one fatality and causing extensive property damage in different parts of the county.
At the time the first tornado warning was issued by the National Weather Service, unbeknownst to each other, two members of Chesterfield’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) happened to be at LaPrade Library.
When they recognized the proximity of the library to the tornado that touched down near the intersection of Route 360 and Speeks Drive, both immediately sprung into action, working with staff to quickly usher all customers into a safe space in the building and keep everyone calm until the warning had elapsed.
Nobody from the county’s Office of Emergency Management had to call and give them orders. They had been trained for the situation and knew exactly what to do.
“At the core of it, CERT really is just about having a preparedness mindset, developing the needed base of skills and knowledge and fostering a culture of action,” said Jess Robison, Chesterfield’s emergency management coordinator. “We want people to be able to help themselves, their family and their neighbors in a time of crisis.”
CERT was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and aligned with the Citizen Corps, a service-based organization founded by former President George W. Bush, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Chesterfield launched its CERT program in 2002. The free course consists of eight sessions totaling 24 hours and offers participants hands-on training in areas such as disaster preparedness, emergency communications, fire safety and suppression, search-and-rescue techniques and basic emergency medical skills.
CERT trains citizens to complement professional first-responders in a number of ways: simple triage (diagnosis and treatment of airway obstruction, bleeding and shock); organization of chaotic post-incident environments; damage assessments; and providing accurate initial reports once fire and rescue officials arrive on the scene.
“We have to respect the boundaries of first responders. We can’t just have people showing up on scene just because they’re a CERT member,” Robison said. “We teach people what proper deployment looks like -- when they can and can’t deploy themselves. There is a big difference.
“I tell them if you’re in your neighborhood, that’s your domain. If you see something wrong and there are no first responders, absolutely provide that help. But if you see something on the news in a different part of the county, unless I ask you to, do not show up. That’s outside of your wheelhouse,” she added.
Upon successful completion of the training course, new CERT members receive a helmet, vest and backpack containing goggles, gloves, basic tools and a first-aid kit. They’re expected to keep the equipment in a handy location in case they’re called into action. There also are ongoing training opportunities for members to acquire new skills.
Their names and contact information also are logged into a database maintained by the Emergency Management office’s CERT coordinator. The office currently has about 1,500 Chesterfield residents on the list.
Once they complete the CERT course, volunteers are provided helmets, vests and backpacks containing needed supplies.
Many of Chesterfield’s CERT members are retirees like David Lipp, who participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in college and served in the military before going on to have a long career in the private sector.
Lipp took the CERT course about 12 years ago, a year before he retired, looking for ways to stay active and engaged with his community once he was no longer working full time.
“My mission in life is to help others and that’s what the CERT program is all about,” Lipp said. “I’m glad to have the skills and the willingness to use them. I thoroughly enjoy it.”
If there’s a common thread that unites CERT members of all ages, it’s a passion for volunteerism.
Christina Clark became certified in first aid while working as a lifeguard as a teenager, then later gained experience in supporting search-and-rescue operations in her former job as an airborne exploration geophysicist. She also comes from a family that believes strongly in giving back to the community.
Clark moved to Chesterfield in 2014 and was looking for ways to get to know her new community better. She completed the CERT course in 2016, and despite working full time has remained an active volunteer ever since.
“Our CERT members are amazing,” she said. “It’s a really wonderful group of people who genuinely want to help others and use their skills and knowledge when it’s needed.”
The Atlantic hurricane season officially began June 1. Because extreme weather events and other large-scale emergencies occur infrequently, however, CERT has a role in educating its participants to take proactive roles in much more common, everyday scenarios.
Most recently, members provided thousands of hours of unpaid labor to support COVID-19 testing sites and vaccine clinics in Chesterfield.
“That’s what CERT does. You have a need and you find people with all these different skills outside of what we teach them, and that’s when they really shine,” said Robison, who herself has a deeply personal connection to the program; she was hired as the county’s CERT coordinator in January 2018 shortly after completing the course, launching her on a new career path in emergency management.
Prior to the pandemic, Chesterfield offered CERT training four times a year, with morning and evening classes in the spring and fall. Robison is planning to have one class this fall, then ramp back up to the normal schedule in 2023.
To serve an increasingly diverse community, she’s also looking to expand CERT to connect with people who are fluent in Spanish and other languages spoken most frequently in the county.
“The program is great,” Robison said, “but we’re always trying to make it better.”
If you're interested in becoming a member of Chesterfield's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), visit chesterfield.gov/CERT.