How to initiate a local EM volunteer program: Southern Ontario CERT Part 2
August 14, 2023
By Grant Durfey
Program co-ordinator Grant Durfey provides a detailed protocol for establishing and retaining CERT volunteers, complete with case study example from a Niagara emergency last year
Creating a new program can be an intimidating prospect, but it is also a rewarding endeavour with the possibility to have a lasting impact.
In my last article, I discussed the need for municipal emergency management (EM) programs to invest in building local volunteer disaster response programs, modeled on the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) concept seen in the United States.
In part 2 of the article, we will look at the process of starting a CERT program and examine a Canadian CERT case study. Starting in 2022 Niagara Region established their own CERT program reporting directly to Niagara Region Emergency Management. As the lead in creating this program, I will walk through our process from inception to the present day and the different challenges we faced.
Initiating Niagara CERT
Initial concepts for the team began in 2019 as the result of a volunteer management plan review. Many of the concerns raised in my last article were realized and we had decided to address them by starting our own CERT program.
With a lack of existing CERT programs in Canada, our research started with CERT teams south of the border. This helped to influence some of our initial training decisions and even though we created much of our own material and content, it provided examples of what could realistically be expected from a volunteer group.
This research, combined with a gap analysis of our own area helped us decide the initial skill set and equipment needed for the team. While COVID in 2020 delayed the start of the program and took the majority of our time, we spent 2020-2021 developing the initial training material and working on internal approvals.
The common concerns often voiced when the concept of a new CERT program was raised related to liability and financing.
Both these issues deserve consideration, but when examined thoroughly, do not provide a barrier to the creation of a CERT program. Beginning with the liability concern, there are two main aspects to examine, the first being the alternative volunteer source.
We know from the previous article and through many recent online articles, discussions and op-eds, that additional personnel will be needed after a disaster, and Canada does not currently have a large civilian surge capacity. This means most of your surge capacity will constitute walk-on volunteers. While their motives may be good and there are great examples of spontaneous volunteers providing assistance, the lack of training, PPE, and operational integration is a concern.
Liability is a lot lower if the group you are using is trained, vetted, and screened ahead of time with defined policies and roles. An additional mitigating factor is the training provided to the volunteers; this training matches that which staff receive. For example, our volunteers driving dedicated CERT vehicles go through the same driver training as our paramedics, which helps to mitigate any additional risk and provides no more risk than if a staff member were driving the vehicle.
Evaluating financial setbacks
The financial aspect of starting a team is a complex one. Funding can be secured through grants, donations, one-off emergency funding, or proper capital and operational lines. The important aspect to remember is CERT can be scaled to whatever resources are available.
While one CERT may have vehicles and technological assets, another may be a list of names to be called should a disaster happen. Both can be effective and aid the community in their own way.
Emergency Managers should also remember that long-lasting programs are built over time, not all at once. Start slow and build one step at a time to achieve the end goal you want; this is the best way to build a lasting program.
Even with secured funding, the primary aspect that will make or break any organization like this is your volunteers. Without enough of the right people, no volunteer program will succeed. The good news is, the right people are out there and are wanting to help.
In the first year of the Niagara CERT program, a callout was made for 50 volunteer positions, with minimal paid advertising and about $100 spent on social media ads. In just two weeks, over 300 volunteer applications were received.
The volunteers are there, provided the ask is reasonable.
One of the most important aspects is to ensure the expectations of the volunteers are not overly strenuous. The goal for a CERT is to have a true mix of members – not all students, not all middle-aged, not all retired – a blend of the population. For this to work, membership requirements must not be so onerous that they cannot be effectively balanced with full-time work, school, and family life.
Additionally, the framing of the volunteer request can go a long way in aiding recruitment. No one will be more interested in helping a community than those who call it home. CERT is meant to be that exact program: helping neighbours, families, and friends directly where you live. This type of direct local support appeals directly to people’s sense of community involvement.
How to retain volunteers
Once volunteers are recruited, they must also be retained. Looking at our Niagara CERT example case study, there are three main factors used to help keep volunteers active and on the team.
The first is a low required commitment but high optional commitment. Niagara CERT members have a low number of required hours they must train per year. However, monthly optional trainings are offered to any member who wants to attend.
While some of these trainings are directly CERT related, others are offered based on member suggestions, allowing them to learn about what topics they are interested in.
The second aspect is simple: food.
If you are hosting evening training sessions and people are volunteering their time to attend, then make sure to feed them (and more than just pizza every night!). This turns the beginning of a training session into a casual dinner where team members can talk and build bonds outside of formal training scenarios.
Lastly, open and honest engagement is key.
Two-way communication between volunteers and those running the team goes a long way to allowing all volunteers, from the newest to the most senior, to feel involved with how the team operates. Many training ideas, exercise scenarios, or public education ideas can come from volunteers and the experiences they have had.
CERT is not just about utilizing volunteers to respond, but also providing a direct connection for local emergency managers into their community.
If you are fortunate to have funding and people, the next important question is: what should your CERT program do? The obvious answer is to prepare to respond to emergencies, especially since emergency response is in the name.
However, a true CERT program will expand beyond preparedness and response and operate in all phases of the EM continuum. While using CERT as a key response surge resource was the initial impetus of the program in Niagara, a CERT can easily be much more.
Niagara’s CERT volunteers are trained in traditional response topics, such as first aid, basic search and rescue, incident organization, radio procedures, etc. However, based on a gap analysis conducted, specific needs were also identified.
CERT worked with the local ARES/ACS group to start a CERT-Auxiliary Communications Unit, bringing amateur radio operators and systems directly in-house. This is supplemented by satellite internet terminals and deployable radios stations all run by CERT volunteers.
One of the most impactful aspects of the Niagara CERT program is the dedicated Public Education Unit. Working with the local safety village, starting in September 2023, specially trained CERT volunteers will provide weekly education to elementary-aged students on severe weather and emergency preparedness. This helps the preparedness aspect of CERT flow from the volunteers and program being prepared to increasing general preparedness of the public.
Response: CERT in action
The last aspect to touch on is an example of a CERT response. Niagara CERTs’ first deployment was on the morning of Christmas Day 2022.
An extremely severe blizzard had hit Niagara over the previous 48 hours resulting in extreme flooding, icing, snowfall, and power and cell phone outages.
It was determined Christmas morning that three evacuation/warming shelters would need to be opened immediately and would end up staying open for three days.
Niagara CERT is not the primary shelter operator in Niagara. This responsibility is contracted out to another NGO. However, on Christmas morning, at the tail end of a blizzard that completely closed roads throughout the entire region, volunteer availability was an issue for this provider.
The contracted NGO was unable to staff the shelters fully due to the storm impacts, and many of the staff who would normally assist were also unable to attend. This led to a CERT callout and with all of the CERT volunteers living locally, many were able to make it in and help staff the shelters.
This is a perfect example of the need to have a depth of personnel when it comes to incident response and the need to have a core group of volunteers local to the area, available at any given time. This also means it is important to consider how large your CERT team is.
In Niagara, the assumption is made of roughly 33 per cent available volunteers at any given time, however, it is recognized this will be less around key holidays. With this in mind, a team size of 150 volunteers is maintained to ensure an appropriate number will always be available.
While no two CERT programs may be structured or run the same way, they all provide the same function: a local, trained personnel reserve, integrated with your community and your local emergency plans. This can be executed in many different ways, but as long as that function is kept in mind, then a CERT will benefit any community.
By expanding CERT use beyond just response, CERT volunteers can truly represent a force multiplier for emergency managers everywhere.
Grant Durfey currently works as an Emergency Management Program Specialist at the municipal/regional level in Ontario. In his day to day role, Grants portfolio covers EOC preparedness, CBRNE planning, notification system lead, and responsibility for implementing and coordinating the local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
Grant has extensive experience functioning both in EOCs and on-scene during emergencies and takes pride in blending this real-world experience with emerging trends and industry best practices. Grant is a strong proponent of the concept of community resiliency and believes working with the public is one of the best ways to improve disaster preparedness, planning, response and recovery.
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