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Surprise: That certified first responder to a disaster may be your neighbor

Community emergency response team training

Trained members of Kansas City's Community Emergency Response Team return to the city's emergency operations center to relive their training.
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Trained members of Kansas City's Community Emergency Response Team return to the city's emergency operations center to relive their training.

It’s tornado season, so an imaginary sudden devastation of Kansas City may as well begin there.

You emerge to a wind-ravaged scene of pain and terror, and that first human sweeping toward you to offer aid just might come wearing a green vest and hard hat.

And when your eyes focus, you see it’s your neighbor.

You may not know that hundreds of such volunteers have gone through intense training to earn those green vests — a legion of citizens certified as members of area Community Emergency Response Teams.

Tornadoes would be just the most obvious threat on their minds.

Whatever might happen — ice storm, the electric grid shuts down, a terrorist bomb, hellfire, flood — these volunteers would self-deploy from their homes with their government-issued backpacks of tools to check on neighbors and organize help before emergency crews arrive.

“We’re first-first responders,” said Walter Cox, 60, a member of the Kansas City team. “We help secure and make it safe … get people triaged and be ready to help direct ambulances and fire and police.”

They’re always asking, “What if…?” said fellow team member Isaiah Muhammad, 76.

“We know at some point we sit on a fault line, and someone’s going to need our help,” teammate Crystal Johnson, 58, said.

“We never know when,” she said, “we never know the time, we never know why … but whatever the circumstances, we need to show up.”

There are more than 600 trained and certified members now on the Kansas City team and more than 2,000 across several Kansas City-area squads.

Anyone wanting the free training in Kansas City would have to wait four to six months because demand is so high, said the city’s emergency management director, Jennifer Fales.

Nationwide, more than 20,000 people are taking the training each year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Who are these stand-by heroes?

Just regular folks, Cox said. Why wouldn’t anyone want this training, he asks.

But if asked why they do it, most of these volunteers remember something out of the ordinary that inspired their service.

“Katrina did something to me,” Muhammad said, seeing so many people in flooded New Orleans in 2005, unprepared and their overwhelmed government rescuers unable to help.

Barbara Muhammad, 64, of Kansas City — not related to Isaiah Muhammad — honors her mother, who until she died at 80 was regularly canning food and frequently walking the steps up and down from her eighth-floor apartment.

She knew she’d need to be strong enough to walk those steps if the elevator were out, Muhammad said.

“I thought about my mother, preparing for disaster,” she said.

Clark Corogenes, 36, is deaf. He remembers when he was 12, frightened by Kansas City’s 1993 flooding.

Years later, as an advocate at The Whole Person supporting people with disabilities, he wanted to help others prepare the way he was preparing for emergencies.

“People who are deaf and hard of hearing, people with disabilities, can do this,” Corogenes said through a sign-language interpreter. “It’s important for them to feel safe and protected.”

Cox’s grandmother survived the Hyatt skywalks disaster in 1981 that killed 114 people

“If more people knew how to help people,” he said, “if more people had training, possibly more lives could have been saved.”

All of the Kansas City team members who gathered recently at the city’s emergency operations center to talk about their service were already learning preparedness — some with church groups — when they found out about the city’s training.

The city deals 24 hours in training spread out over six sessions. The work includes learning how to deal with fire and natural gas, first aid and treating injuries, search and rescue operations, team organization, and the psychology of terror and disaster.

They build up to a full-scale exercise in simulated disasters complete with people screaming in distress, suffering from harrowing injuries, often set in darkness.

“They (the injured) use intensive makeup for that shock factor,” Cox said. “The grand finale puts it all together. It’s utter chaos.”

Fales, who helps organize the simulated rescue missions, would call it “engineered chaos,” she said.

They learn that they first take care of themselves. They make sure their own families are safe. Then they venture out to check on neighbors.

“You start where you stand,” Fales said. They take their backpack of tools and give aid and comfort.

They will have heavy flashlights, nonsparking tools, a 52-piece first aid kit, disposable medical gloves, duct tape, a whistle and more, along with the signature green hardhat and vest.

They’re ready to organize teams. They know how to shut off gas lines to homes. They can operate fire extinguishers.

“The people that do this are a special people,” Johnson said, “who share concern for other people than themselves.”

Look for them in the next disaster, God forbid there is one. They’ll be the ones in green.

Community Emergency Response Teams

To locate a team and training opportunities, go to www.fema.gov/community-emergency-response-teams

Inside the CERT team’s green backpacks

Green safety vest

4-in-1 spark-proof tool

Disposable medical gloves

Duct tape

Dust mask

Emergency blanket

52-piece first aid kit

Flashlight with two D-cell batteries

Hard hat (green)

Leather work gloves

Light stick

Multifunctional tool with holster

Lumber crayon

Safety goggles

Whistle

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