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Volunteers Needed to Serve on West Hartford’s Community Emergency Response Team

CERT leadership (from left) Robert McCue, Owen Kutscher, and Becca Garrison. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The Town of West Hartford is seeking volunteers to join the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), who will be trained and available to assist in emergency situations.

By Ronni Newton

The Town of West Hartford has established a program and is actively beginning to recruit volunteers to be part of CERT – the Community Emergency Response Team – who will be trained and then available to assist first responders and town leaders in the event of an emergency.

Robert McCue, a retired assistant police chief and the deputy manager of the town’s Office of Emergency Management, is serving as CERT coordinator, assisted by residents Becca Garrison and Owen Kutscher who have been involved in establishing the program and will be serving as team leaders.

McCue, Garrison, and Kutscher hope to have a wide range of volunteers apply, and all will receive specialized training they can use in emergencies, and also receive training on the town’s incident response system.

“We want to get as many folks in the community prepared as possible,” McCue said, and have representation in neighborhoods spread throughout town.

CERT members will play the key role of “force multipliers,” McCue said, taking on critically important tasks during situations when the police and fire department members are otherwise engaged.

While everyone will receive the same training – a standardized 20-hour course begins in June – Garrison said she expects that there will be some people who activate whenever there is an opportunity, and others who have been trained “just in case,” but don’t often get actively involved.

Once the training is completed, there is no minimum time required to participate as a CERT member.

CERT members don’t self-deploy. The town’s police and fire chiefs, director of Public Works, and McCue all have the authority to activate team members, and team leaders like Garrison and Kutscher, as well as others who become team leaders, will also organize the volunteers.

“CERT is designed so anyone who has the willingness to help can,” McCue said. Volunteers don’t need to have a first responder or medical background, but just need to have the desire to have extra training so they are prepared to assist when needed.

There’s a natural appeal to former Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, but Garrison said a program like CERT is great for people who tend to be “worriers” because it channels their concerns into skills, so they can then know how to respond to a variety of situations.

Courtesy image

CERT, or something similar, already exists in many communities, including locally in Newington, Farmington, Manchester, and East Hartford. Nationally, the program has its origins in California, assisting with earthquake preparedness and response.

“Lots of places refer to them as the citizen corps,” Garrison said. “It’s for anyone who is interested in building a culture of preparedness.”

“Only training is required, there’s no minimum commitment,” Kutscher added. “It’s for people who want to do things.”

The training begins in late June, and the first several sessions will be remote but later in the summer training will likely be in person. Training modules include:

  • Disaster Threats in West Hartford
  • Personal and Family Preparation and Safety
  • Recognizing and Treating Life-Threatening and Non-Life-Threatening Emergencies
  • Triage and Treatment Area Management
  • Incident Command System
  • Disaster Psychology
  • Fire Safety Techniques
  • Light Search and Rescue Operations

McCue said Fire Chief Greg Priest, who heads the town’s Office of Emergency Management, has been very interested in getting CERT up and running in West Hartford since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when so many people wanted to volunteer but there was no organized structure to manage those efforts.

A recent example where CERT could have assisted with emergency management included setting up and staffing a shelter for victims of an early morning Kane Street fire. Assisting with vaccine clinics could also be a role, and in the event of large storms there will be many roles that could involve CERT members.

“We want a big, diverse group. The more people we have, the more we can spread the workload out,” McCue said.

There may also be non-emergency situations in the future where CERT is able to play a role, such as during parades or other special events, like the drive-through trick-or-treat event the town held last Halloween.

Garrison, whose daytime job is as a project manager, said this is a way “to bring my professional skills to the community.”

She was trained in CERT in New York City, where she lived for about 10 years. Her father had been involved with CERT in Arlington, Virginia, and the team played an important role in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attack at the Pentagon.

She recently moved to West Hartford and reached out to McCue about participating in CERT here.

Kutscher, who graduated from Conard High School, is a junior at the University of New Haven, majoring in emergency management. He was looking for a way to get involved with the community in a first responder role other than joining the police or fire department, and reached out to McCue. He now serves as an intern in the town’s Office of Emergency Management.

West Hartford previously had a CERT program, which was organized by former Fire Chief Bill Austin, but its focus was more regional and the specific focus of the team was printing special ID cards to control access to disaster sites.

The current effort is more community based – and the goal is for it to be fun, too, McCue said. It is open to anyone age 18 or up, who either lives, works, or is a student in West Hartford.

“The first goal is preparedness,” said McCue. “We need to get that core group going and form the nucleus of the CERT team.”

The state requires each CERT group to have a specific focus, and the West Hartford team’s will be shelter management, but that won’t limit their skills or activities.

To be fully-deployed as a CERT member, all of the training modules need to be completed. McCue said he is hoping to have about 30 people register for the training, and understands that not everyone will be able to attend every session, so there will be make-up plans arranged. Following the initial training, there will be continued training in first aid and other preparedness skills.

The state is providing some funds to support CERT, and McCue said some of the training is through FEMA. When fully-trained CERT members are activated, there is some level of Workers’ Compensation and liability protection, he said.

“We’re not joking when we say we want every neighborhood taken care of,” Garrison said. “We want. people who know what to do in an emergency.”

To find out more about CERT, visit the web page on the town’s website. For more specific information, you can fill out the interest form here, email [email protected] or contact McCue directly at [email protected] or 860-561-8310.

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