Organizing amid chaos

These are my class notes from the CERT class on Organization, Sunday morning Sept. 16. Thanks to Emily Kenyon for reviewing and adding good stuff.

Disaster brings chaos. Survival and recovery spring from organization. The CERT class this past Sunday morning at the Berkeley Fire Department taught a full room of participants the elements of what a disaster recovery organization looks like.

CERT = Community Emergency Response Team. The time when CERT springs into action starts when the shaking stops and ends when the professional emergency responders are able to resume normal neighborhood services. That could be days or weeks.

CERT organization grows out of neighborhoods. Each cluster of perhaps 30-50 households, more or less, organizes a CERT group or chapter. Belonging to a CERT chapter means, at the base level, awareness about personal disaster preparedness. Ideally, each household will put together an emergency kit. Thus equipped, each household member will be able to take care of themselves and their dependents to the extent possible under the circumstances.

But CERT is not primarily about teaching individual survival. CERT is about being of service to others. “Do the greatest good for the greatest number” is the prime CERT directive.

Being helpful to others means, among other things, acquiring specific disaster recovery skills. Ideally, each neighborhood will have a core group of volunteers who have taken a CERT class in fire suppression, first aid, radio communications, search & rescue, and related skills. Neighbors who work in these fields professionally — nurses, doctors, contractors, many others — and people with useful training from other sources should make themselves known so that they can be called on. When CERT springs into action, people with these skills will form Operation Teams — Search and Rescue, Fire Suppression, Medical, Radio, and others. The more neighbors who are trained ahead of time by taking the CERT classes, the better the neighborhood response can be.

The keystone to pulling these skills together is the Incident Command System (ICS). Our CERT class teacher, Lieutenant David Sprague of the Berkeley Fire Department, explained that the ICS grew out of years of local experience, especially in California disasters, and has evolved into a nationwide standard that is now in use by emergency responders — cops, firefighters, EMTs, others — wherever disaster strikes. CERT uses the same system, scaled down to the community volunteer level.

Core CERT leadership consists of four people: an Incident Commander (IC) also known as Team Leader (TL), a head of Operations, a head of Logistics, and a head of Planning. The structure presupposes that a suitable command post location has been picked out ahead of time, and is known to all CERT team members.

People can be assigned to these roles ahead of time, but they have no duties or powers in normal times. They become meaningful only in disaster response. ICS is not a template for community government, it is a system for responding to an INCIDENT, and comes to life only in the interlude between the disaster and the resumption of normal city services.

Regardless of prior assignments, in the ICS the first person to arrive at the command location automatically becomes the IC/TL. That person may delegate the role to someone else as they arrive, but until then, the first to arrive is in charge, and their job is to remain at the command location and organize the recovery.

The most interesting part of our Sunday morning CERT class was the disaster drill exercise. Lieutenant Sprague had us pick four leaders (IC/TL, Ops, Logistics, Planning) more or less at random, and then sent the remaining class members out into the yard. Emily Kenyon, our California Street block captain, became IC/TL; I was Ops, and two students from Cal were volunteered to fill the other roles. Sprague gave us a useful chart with street addresses in our area together with a checklist for issues such as fire, gas leak, structural damage, injury, and others. We had a few additional forms. We had a few minutes to organize ourselves. Then the horde of “neighbors” flooded in, many of them bearing damage reports (on sheets Sprague had given them). Our job was to take in the reports — there were eight altogether — and weigh their priority. It was chaos, with people milling about every which way, and fragments of information coming in from several sides, but our impromptu little core group held tight and in a few minutes we decided on the top priorities.

The next step would be to organize the volunteers into operation teams and send them out to take appropriate action, but Sprague halted the exercise at that point and we did a review. We fared well. We got the top three priorities right. We missed a few things, but nothing serious. Best of all, we got a taste of the beauty of organization in the midst of chaos. Without the ICS team, it would have been just a mess of bewildered, isolated victims milling around in confusion and depression. With ICS, we became a proactive community responding intelligently and effectively, and becoming quietly confident, even cheerful. All the active participants seemed to bond a bit in the process.

I found the following points about ICS organization interesting and memorable.

Each CERT team member has one and only one person from whom they take direction and to whom they report. (“Unity of Command.”) Thus, the Ops, Logistics and Planning chiefs all report to the IC/TL and only to the IC/TL.

Each CERT leader has from three to a maximum of seven people who take direction from and give reports to them. (“Scope of Command.”) The ideal number is five. If the number of team members exceeds seven, the team needs to be divided. A team must consist of at least two people (“buddy system”) — no CERT operations are performed solo.

Given these parameters, ICS is extremely flexible. As the scale of the disaster and the number of volunteers waxes and wanes, the organization can scale with the situation yet remain clear and coherent, provided there is good communication.

Sprague gave a really interesting example of why this kind of structure is important and better than spontaneous organization of helpful neighbors. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he was in charge of a group of 10 people assigned by IC to search a number of addresses where victims were reported to be trapped. After finding and searching several to no avail, they reported back to IC and discovered that a group of local firefighters had spontaneously assembled and rescued the people. If that group had reported in to IC, the efforts of Sprague’s group could have been more effectively maximized.

A common language is essential to effective disaster communication. Terms that we learned in other CERT classes, such as the distinction between “heavy” and other structural damage, need to be understood by all team members.

In everything that CERT does, Sprague emphasized, personal safety has to come first. CERT members do not serve the community by becoming victims themselves. On an airplane, put on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else with theirs.

Operational priorities (where do we go first to do what?) are governed by the general priorities of disaster relief work, namely:

(1) Save saveable lives
(2) Preserve property
(3) Preserve the environment

The first point figured in our exercise when we had a report of one address where two people were partly buried under a collapsed structure and did not respond to attempts at resuscitation. In other words, they were almost certainly dead. They were not “saveable lives.” This situation was a lower priority than several others with injured parties who were clearly alive.

The third point came up in a situation where a house was on fire and the fire threatened to jump to some trees and from there to a neighboring apartment building. The correct action was to evacuate the neighboring apartment and cut down the trees, because preservation of property has a higher priority than the environment. The structure was too heavily involved for CERT volunteers to enter it; this should be left the fire department.

Sprague gave the class an approximate job description of each of the incident leadership roles, together with a profile of people likely to fill those roles best:

The ideal IC/TL is good at deciding and comfortable being in charge, but they must be able to listen, re-evaluate and change quickly. They must be flexible. They should be articulate and good communicators. People who do event planning, coaches, supervisors, managers in dynamic environments might fit best into this role.

The Ops chief puts together and directs each of the CERT operation teams: Fire, Search & Rescue, Medical, Radio. “Ops” should have hands-on familiarity with these operations. Usually, according to Sprague, good Ops want to get out into the field instead of working in the command post, and have to be restrained.

The Logistics chief (“Logs”) is in charge of supplies and equipment, and also registers volunteers when they arrive. Some CERT groups have caches of disaster equipment stored in a safe place, and Logs is in charge of tracking what goes in and out of those stores. Ideally, Logs will have a written record of every tool and supply and of every volunteer who comes in and leaves. This person must be highly organized, fast, and a good record-keeper. The goal is to make sure the tools come back to be used for the next priority, and that people do not disappear without a trace..

The head of Planning (“Plan”) is a multi-tasker, a sponge for information from all sources, able to absorb, digest, and synthesize data of different kinds and values and provide a coherent situation briefing at any moment. Plan will also be a key source for the after-incident review and wrapup. When the fire department or police do come to the neighborhood, Plan would be the person best able to brief them.

This was a very useful class. It’s clear that CERT organization is the glue that holds all the operational aspects of CERT work together. The ICS structure is easy to learn, simple, flexible, and likely to work well enough with the talents available in our community.

The schedule for CERT classes is on the web here. Classes are free and are generally held at the Fire Department station at 8th and Cedar. You need to pre-register by email.

The training materials for all the CERT classes are on the web here. But warning, they vary widely in quality. The best stuff comes from the Berkeley Fire Department class instructors. Don’t try to learn this stuff from the online PowerPoints.  Or from my class notes.

My class notes to other CERT courses:

Fire Suppression     Radio   Light Search & Rescue

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