WALNUT CREEK -- During a disaster, the city's volunteer Community Emergency Response Team could be the real first responders, now that the group finally has what it has always lacked -- effective communications.
The CERT group, with more than 500 active members one of the biggest in the area, has used a $17,000 grant from AT&T to buy ham radio equipment and train its members to operate it. So if an earthquake or flash flood knocked out phone lines and towers, CERT volunteers would be the eyes and ears for the city's first responders.
"If you can communicate, you can plan ... otherwise you are dealing with an emergency in the dark," said Don Prosnitz, a volunteer with CERT. Prosnitz would know, as he was an adviser for the US Department of Justice under former Attorney General Janet Reno during the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. One of the biggest difficulties for law enforcement during that response, he said, was communication between agencies.
Ifa disaster happens, CERT members -- who have been sworn in as city disaster service workers -- check on their families first and then report to their assigned staging areas, assemble and begin search and rescue.
It's harder than one would think to learn to use a ham radio, Prosnitz said, but necessary because police and firefighters can't be everywhere after a disaster and will need help.
"We will be the first ones to provide a reliable picture of what has happened in our city," Prosnitz said.
The city has helped train about 1,400 people since launching CERT in 2004 and has held several disaster drills.
Each of the eight CERT staging areas scattered throughout the city now has a radio and trained operator who will be able to communicate with a dedicated CERT radio operator in the city's Emergency Operations Center.
"I know of no other CERT program in the county that has this coordinated of a communications link, and it has all been paid for out of grants and other money raised by the volunteers," said Gayle Vassar, communications and outreach manager for the city. Walnut Creek had central Contra Costa's first CERT team.
The staging areas are organized, and each has large containers stockpiled with water food and emergency supplies.
"Anyone can make a difference following a disaster," she said. "While a number of our CERT (volunteers) have medical backgrounds, or are deeply involved in radio communications, the majority are everyday people who want to help."
For more information, go to www.walnut-creek.org/cert
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.