Community Emergency Response Team from Great Neck pose in front of a Manhasset Lakeville fire engine during a drill as a part of their training.
The victim was conscious and moaning softly, her body trapped. Leslie Ostrover quickly knelt at the woman's head to comfort and reassure her that efforts were underway to free her from the building that had collapsed during a tornado pinning her underneath. Other team members positioned pieces of wood, a technique called box cribbing which if properly executed can bear 24,000 pounds, around the victim to protect her from further injuries if efforts to leverage the building failed. Meanwhile Bob Bernstein shone a flashlight underneath the rubble in an attempt to make sure that there were no nails sticking out that would further injure the victim when she was gently but firmly pulled from the debris. An instructor from the New York City Fire Department oversaw the operation coaching the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) trainees as they worked together in a life or death exercise where experience with the principles of the game of pick-up-sticks seemed to apply. "Remember, for every action, there is a reaction," said the instructor, "and it is important to size up a situation before taking action ... the goal is to save the greatest number of people in the shortest time ... so free the lightly trapped people first."
The team's box cribbing was a bit amiss and some trainees placed their own digits underneath the timbers, a no-no, but in the end the victim rose unscathed for in actuality she had been lying prone underneath a door, not a building. This had been a simulated rescue giving CERT volunteers a glimpse at the kind of operations that can take place in a real emergency.
CERT training is a national program under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that prepares private citizens to assist first responders in emergency situations. It encourages grassroots planning that has been shown to be effective in providing a comprehensive, community wide response to emergencies combining the strength of the fire and police departments, the resources of the municipalities along with a cooperative citizen involvement. A grant was awarded to Nassau County to organize training sessions for the CERT program and to begin a core program throughout communities stretching from the north to the south shores.
Twenty-two people in Great Neck answered the call to participate in the CERT program and during a period of two weeks attended 20 hours of basic training. Those people are: Annabella Adamowig, Brian Berman, Robert Bernstein, Cooky Blaha, Wallace Blitz, Mary Causin, Aaron Daniels, Josh Fatoullah, Edward Finkelstein, Gary and Toni Gambetta, Louise Johns, Rona Levy, Shaun Moamen, Leslie and Mitch Ostrover, Alex Rosenblatt, Jane Totura, Richard Weiner, Mark Winiarski, Matthew Wiener and Jonathan Bachrach.
The volunteers are taught to make sure that they have followed basic emergency preparedness in their own homes first so that if called upon they can fan out to help the larger community if an emergency occurs, knowing that their families are safe. The training guide that was given to each CERT trainee spells out a long list of items that a home disaster supply kit should contain. All of the participants the Record interviewed stated that they had learned a tremendous amount of information that they would apply at home and at the workplace.
The course also touched on fire safety, emergency medical operations, light search and rescue, CERT organization, disaster psychology, terrorism and specific facts about various types of hazards and emergency events. CERT graduates know that while they have learned much valuable information, what they have learned is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dealing with disasters. Team members are encouraged to expand upon their training in areas such as advanced first aid, community relations, CPR, automated external defibrillator use, debris removal, donations management and shelter management.
Trainees were given a getaway bag packed with necessary items that they might need to assist in an emergency. Each person received a reflective vest, hardhat, flashlight, goggles, dust mask, duct tape and special CERT identification badges.
Jane Totura said, "We hope we'll never need all this information, but in a real disaster first responders can't do everything and that's where we come in ... to assist them so that firefighters and police can concentrate on what they've been trained to do." She went on to recount that during the wildfires and mudslides in California, CERTs were deployed to go door to door to make sure that people had evacuated; they also reported back to the people in charge regarding secific areas of need that they encountered.
This round of training was the second session for Nassau County residents, but there will be more opportunities for people to participate in the CERT program. The training team that worked with the Great Neck volunteers is comprised of experienced firefighters. Paul Hashagen and Bruce Newbery are from Rescue Company #1, FDNY and Mark Frappied is a firefighter/paramedic/hazmat tech from the Garden City Fire Department. They were aided by local firefighters from Manhasset Lakeville Fire Department who brought one of their engines over and taught the trainees to use fire extinguishers properly in a simulated fire. In fact, during the evening of the simulation just as each team completed their assignment to put out a fire, an alarm came in and the Manhasset-Lakeville volunteers rushed out to deal with a real crisis. (Or a false alarm, the bane of fire departments everywhere.)
Cooky Blaha said, "At least we feel somewhat empowered ... we can attempt to be a help to our neighbors ... this is a beginning, but I think we have lots more organizing to do ... maybe with block leaders in every neighborhood identifying people who might need special assistance in an emergency."
What is the next step for Great Neck's Community Emergency Response Team? Many of the volunteers are wondering just that. Some will seek further training and others would like to become more involved in determining what kind of role CERTs could play in bringing about more public awareness and interest in community preparedness. Perhaps there is a need for a community-brainstorming forum combining the thoughts of the seasoned emergency responders and their leadership, public officials and the cadre of citizens who would like to be useful if an emergency occurs. One thing they know for sure: we are all in this together and we can help ourselves, and each other, better in a time of crisis if we are prepared.