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If disaster strikes, help thy neighbor

Largo offers a free course to teach people how to provide aid during crises, when emergency crews can get overwhelmed.

By JILL PERRINO
Published November 7, 2005


LARGO - Fire suppression. Search and rescue. Identifying victims with special needs.

These are some of the tasks that must be done during a disaster.

But in the chaos that often comes after a major disaster, emergency crews can quickly become overwhelmed.

That's when a properly trained citizenry can step in as a valuable resource, said Karry Bell, Largo's deputy fire chief.

"People want to do something," he said. "They often don't know what or how."

To help them, Largo began offering Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training a year ago to show people how to help their neighbors during a disaster. Since then, about 35 people, including four city employees, have gone through three sessions. The fourth session starts tonight. Those interested can still sign up, Bell said.

Bonnie Smith, 61, took the class in June with her husband, Rex, 66. She called the classes "awesome" and recommends the course for anyone concerned about being able to help during disasters.

"My neighbors are all over 55," she said. "Many are very old."

The classes included hands-on training in CPR and basic first aid, she said, and she even received a goody bag at the end of the session, filled with a CERT vest, hard hat, flashlight, crow bar, vice grips, first aid supplies, flashlight, gloves, hammer, light sticks and a whistle.

"If we can help just one situation, just one person, that's our goal," said Smith, adding that she now feels well-equipped to help her neighbors.

The classes are free. The city pays the instructors overtime, and the CERT bags are funded through grants, Bell said.

Myrna Anderson, a city employee, said she was called upon to help the Fire Department after Hurricane Charley in 2004 and felt unprepared.

The CERT training she underwent was valuable, she said. She feels more comfortable now dealing with disaster situations.

"In general it's a very good course," Anderson said. "It prepares you for various emergencies."

The concept of community involvement in crisis situations was created by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985. Since then, the Federal Emergency Management Agency decided the concept should be made available nationwide. Many other communities, including Clearwater, Palm Harbor, Dunedin, East Lake and Safety Harbor, offer CERT training, Bell said.

Sue Porter, 58, was in the first CERT training course a year ago. She called it a worthwhile program that others should participate in.

"Considering that hurricanes keep coming and coming, it's important for more people to be trained," she said.

Although helping others is the point, Bell said, learning to do so safely is a big part of CERT training. Those taking the course don't have to be in perfect physical condition. The next round of classes is slated for February.

"We want the public to be able to help themselves and their neighbors safely," Bell said. "CERT gives participants the tools to do so."