When Bunny Chong lived on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, learning how to assess and respond to a disaster herself wasn't high on her list of priorities. There was a fire and police station on every block. But when she moved to the Kenai Peninsula on Nov. 3, 2002, she changed her tune.
"We see the police station and we see the fire station, but we're sort of isolated," she said. "Even on our street, there's one way in and one way out."
When Chong and her husband Al, who will be facilitating search and rescue session for the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), moved to Keystone Drive near Sterling in 2002, they knew life in Alaska would be different than Hawaii, she said, and they wanted to learn how to be safe during natural disasters. Having been born on the Big Island, Chong is used to volcanoes flaring up now and then. Hawaii is also prone to tsunamis and earthquakes, but she felt safe.
Here on the Kenai Peninsula, where the trees have the ability to go up in flames at the drop of a hat, the Chongs took advantage of the free CERT training offered by the borough's Office of Emergency Management.
"It's offered for free, which we love, but we'd be willing to pay," she said. "It's our way of learning how to be prepared and how to keep safe and how to help our neighbors in the event of disasters."
It's not too late to sign up for CERT courses. Glenda Landua, the OEM Citizen Corps Program Coordinator, said 20 people are enrolled in the CERT courses, which begin on Monday, and up to 24 people can take the class. CERT courses take place at the OEM Center in Soldotna from 6 to 9 p.m.
Since the program got its start in 2003, Landua said of the more than 100 people that have taken the courses, 80 are actively involved in the program either as teams or as individuals. After making sure their families are OK during an emergency, Landua said these folks do light search and rescue, set up medical treatment centers and often act as first responders to their neighbors, schools and surrounding community.
"Our goal is to kind of knit teams of people and neighborhoods and workplaces and other places that can use the skills to respond if we have a major emergency or disaster," Landua said. "Overall the basic class is 20 hours and it gives people an awareness of what type of emergencies can effect our communities."
Those emergencies can vary depending on the location of the community. For example, CERT volunteers in Homer and Seward might learn how to respond to a tsunami, Landua said. Other emergencies can include earthquakes and volcano eruptions, avalanches, floods and winter storms.
"You name it, we got it," Landua said, adding that responding to terrorism attacks has also become a priority for CERT training.
CERT students will learn what kind of extinguisher to use in a fire and will get to try their hand at putting a fire out. Even though student's aren't going to become certified in CPR or First Aid, Landua said they will be able to determine whether or not an emergency survivor is in shock, how to make bleeding stop and what to do if a person's not breathing.
"(CERT volunteers) help the most people they can in a bad situation and try to bridge the gap until emergency responders can get there," Landua said.
One aspect of CERT training involves learning about how people respond emotionally and mentally to disasters. Keith Randall, who is the chaplin at Central Emergency Services, will teach volunteers to understand and treat disaster psychology not only in victims, but in themselves as well.
"I see it as an emotional or psychological first aid," Randall said. "The emergency medical people are there to take care of the physical body, but we also need to take care of the mental, emotional and spiritual well being of victims and rescuers."
At the end of the two-week training session, students will be able to display the skills they learned in a mass casualty simulation. Landua said volunteers with the Civil Air Cadettes will play the injured victims of an earthquake or another disaster while volunteers put the skills they learned into motion.
Even though Chong said she hasn't had a chance to put her own skills into play, more than 20 CERT volunteers were on standby to help with evacuating neighborhoods during the Caribou Hills fire in June.
"We didn't end up (using) them," Landua said. "I just put contacted folks that were available and they stood by."
When students pass their training, Landua said they receive a kit with hard hats, flashlights, duct tape, vests and goggles that they can keep handy in case disatser strikes.
Once students complete the training session, Chong said there's a test they can take on the FEMA Web site in order to become a certified CERT volunteer. Even though Chong is a certified CERT volunteer, she still attends training sessions to keep her husband company and to refresh her own knowledge in emergency response. If a flood or another disaster on par with Hurricane Katrina were to hit the Kenai Peninsula, she wants to be ready.
"I will be able to help my fellow man or to help myself if something like that happens," she said. "I love going to the refresher course so that if anything happens I'm prepared."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com
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