Bronx CERT team prepped for disaster

There are eight active Community Emergency Response Teams in the Bronx. Although activists in Los Angeles established the CERT model, New Yorkers embraced it after 9/11. (Above) The Community District 11 CERT meets monthly at Aging in America, on Pelham Parkway South. Photo courtesy of CB 11 CERT

Joe Thompson showed up to the Community District 11 CERT meeting Monday, December 8 sporting a sharp windbreaker vest, green with “Community Emergency Response Team” in white block lettering.

“I joined for the uniform,” Thompson joked.

But Thompson is serious about the CERT and his reasons for participating. Like many Bronx volunteer CERT members, Thompson, who also heads the 49th Precinct Community Council, sprang to action after 9/11.

“A lot of us are firm believers – we are going to get hit again,” Thompson said. “Look at what happened in Mumbai, India last month. Look at the storms recently. Look at City Island, with only one way in and one way out. We need to be prepared.”

CD 11’s CERT is nearly three years old. Silvio Mazella, former president of the Morris Park Community Association and current Jacobi Medical Center board member, worked with Community Board 11 and the city’s Office of Emergency Management to found the team.

Thompson and others completed an 11-week OEM training – light search and rescue, basic firefighting and elementary first aid. When a disaster strikes, CERTs respond under orders from the police and fire departments. They direct traffic, perform triage and console the shaken or wounded.

CERT 11 hasn’t dealt with a major catastrophe yet, but Thompson and his teammates frequently fan out to warming and cooling stations during heat waves and cold snaps, where they distribute water, coffee, blankets and cots.

In the event of another large-scale terrorist attack, police and fire officers could ask CERT members to channel crowds away from the scene, disseminate information and check buildings for survivors.

“This isn’t a club,” said CERT 11 member Bob La Vallie. “We exist to help.”

Although a solid core remains from CERT 11’s original training session, the team is recruiting. OEM may schedule a course in the Bronx next year. If you’re over 18, you qualify to join a CERT anywhere in New York City. When CERTs deploy, they do so in squads of four or five – a fire specialist, a traffic specialist and a mechanic in each squad.

“We’d like to have at least 25 active members,” Thompson said. “So that if something happens, we can field a few squads.”

Coop City, part of Community District 10, started its own CERT this year. Already, the team includes 35 members, making it one of the city’s largest. According to Community Board 10 district manager Kenneth Kearns, CB 10 would like to expand CERT to City Island and Throggs Neck.

Community District 7’s CERT also formed this year. The borough’s evacuation center is located in the district. Community District 1 gained a CERT Monday, December 15, following a final outdoor drill on 143rd Street in Mott Haven.

“I think interest is elevated everywhere,” Khalil Abdul-Wahhab, who heads the Coop City CERT and sits on that development’s board of directors. “No question that has a lot to do with 9/11 and what’s happening overseas.”

Abdul-Wahhab’s team has deployed three times since August. During a Coop City blackout, it helped residents up and down stairs.

CERTs in the Bronx conduct educational outreach. Both CERT 11 and CERT 10 Coop City distributed “Ready New York” OEM pamphlets August 5 – National Night Out. The pamphlets map New York City’s hurricane evacuation zones.

On December 3, CERT 11 delivered a presentation to the Morris Park Community Association and will visit local churches soon. According to OEM, the Bronx supports eight CERTs.

“Our goal is to get a team in every community district,” OEM spokesman Chris Gilbride said.

Each year, OEM hosts CERT members from all five boroughs on Randall’s Island for a mock calamity – complete with flaming trucks, distraught victims and stalled subway cars. Jacobi Medical Center may involve CERT 11 in its own disaster drill next month.

Both Thompson and Abdul-Wahhab believe Bronxites need to take precautions, in case a hurricane slams the city. “Go bags” are paramount.

“You keep a flashlight, a radio, your meds, some food, some cash and identification together,” Abdul-Wahhab said. “When there’s trouble, you grab that sucker and go.”

OEM’s training has given Thompson and Abdul-Wahhab new confidence and a sense of purpose.

“We’ve had a hard time in the Bronx recruiting,” OEM’s community outreach director, Herman Schaffer, said. “But we’re expanding.”

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