Like many of you, I had some basic preparedness training earlier in life, both with the Scouts and in the military. As a result, I feel at home in the backwoods and can handle a grid-down situation where the utilities and services we all take for granted in our daily lives are no longer available. There is plenty of information online to help you prepare for such events. And there are training courses you can attend to learn more about those topics.

Sadly, there was not much of anything about what to do in the event of a natural disaster other than advice to either bug out or bug in. Being the inquisitive person that I am, I started looking for ways to round out my preparedness skills and knowledge in this area. That is when I discovered CERT, or Community Emergency Response Teams.


The idea of neighbors organizing to help one another goes all the way back to volunteer fire brigades in the 1800s and communities coming together to raise a new barn or to replace one for someone who lost theirs to a storm or other natural disaster. The germ of the idea for the current CERT program was found in Japan.

This CERT established an information booth in the aftermath of a hurricane in Florida to provide residents with information on how to address the situation they are in. Image from WikiMedia.Org

Los Angeles in the 1980s was rightfully concerned about how to handle the aftermath of earthquakes. In February 1985, as part of city efforts to address the issue, a group of officials went to Japan to study their extensive earthquake preparedness plans. They found that to provide the most help as quickly as possible, the local communities had established and trained local teams to respond to the devastation that follows a natural disaster such as an earthquake. These teams were trained in fire suppression techniques, basic search and rescue, first aid and evacuation.

In September 1985, a magnitude 8.5 earthquake hit Mexico City. Hundreds of volunteers came forward and started searching the debris for survivors. Over the course of 15 days they saved 800 people who were trapped in the rubble. Sadly, due to lack of training and equipment, 100 of those volunteers lost their lives while searching for survivors.

CERT members in Washington, D.C., conduct triage and first aid on disaster victims during a readiness drill. Triage is done to identify the order in which injured people will be seen by medical professionals.

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) took the lessons learned from their research in Japan and the tragedy in Mexico City and, in 1986, created the first Community Emergency Response Teams. Their purpose was to help citizens and government understand how they can help to prepare for disasters and how citizens can best help one another until emergency services arrive and then how to safely support the emergency service personnel without getting in the way.

Working as a team is a crucial part of any activity you participate in as a CERT member. Remember your training and follow the directions of your team leader or other onsite supervisor. Image from

The CERT program was languishing by 1987 due to budget constraints but found new interest after the Whittier Narrows earthquake that year vividly underscored the threat of an areawide major disaster and demonstrated the need to expedite the training of civilians to prepare for earthquakes and other emergencies.

In 1993, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made Los Angeles’ idea available to the rest of the country. Teaming up with the Emergency Management Institute, they worked with LAFD to expand their program to address all types of hazards.


There are CERTs in every state and in some territories. Many states also have more than one, with CERTs in each county and in major urban areas. An online search will give you many results. You can also go here to find a nearby team at

If you do not have a CERT near you, then you might want to consider setting one up in your area. Contact your local Emergency Management Agency and tell them of your interest. They may be able to help you get organized or tell you of others in the area with the same interest.

Even if you don’t want to set up a CERT group, you can still take advantage of all of the training materials on Ready.Gov to help prepare yourself and the ones you love in the event of an emergency or disaster.


Your CERT is not just a local group that helps out on local situations. It is part of a network of agencies and organizations at the local, regional, state and national levels. They all coordinate their activities with one another using common terminology and best practices which you will learn about as part of your CERT basic training. These practices make it easier for organizations at different levels to work together in a safe and effective manner to help everyone during the stress of natural disasters and other emergency situations.


When you find the CERT you want to join, they will tell you everything you need to know about how to get the training you need. It will start out with taking some online courses to give you the background you need on the CERT program and the purpose of the CERT.

A final exam and practical exercise, like this wide area search planning exercise will be the final part of your CERT Basic Training. Image from AAACERT.Org

Taking in-person training sessions that may cover a long weekend or be given over the course of a number of weekends will be your next step, depending on how your local team is organized. The training is a combination of classroom lectures and demonstrations and outdoor field exercises where you put to use what you learned in the classroom. The emphasis is not on just giving you the knowledge, but on also giving you the opportunity to use what you learned in a real life situation. This way, you will know you can do each task before you have to do it in real life.

Community outreach, like this home visit, is a big part of CERT activities as team members canvas neighborhoods to provide information on disaster readiness and to determine what information or support people need. Image from WikiMedia.Org

Periodic training sessions, often provided on a monthly or quarterly basis, will expose you to new information and skills, as well as give you an opportunity to keep your existing skills fresh and ready to use. In addition to training offered by the team for its members, you will also have the opportunity to take part in local and regional disaster drills run by local jurisdictions and by your regional and state level emergency management agencies. These will give you a chance to use your skills in simulated situations, and if you are role playing as someone affected by the disaster you can see how others handle various situations.

Training on how to handle biological hazards is part of your basic and ongoing training in CERT. Image from WikiMedia.Org

More detailed information and training materials are available on your local CERT website and on the FEMA website, Ready. Gov. This content includes training materials, PowerPoint slides, videos, handouts, forms and learning aids. In addition to being in English, they are also available in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean.

The basic training that all CERT members receive includes topics designed to keep them safe during emergencies and to make them effective as they help those around them.


CERT training includes:

Community Preparedness 

  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Hazards and their potential impact
  • Preparedness at home and the workplace.

CERT Mobilization

  • Disaster medical operations
  • Life-threating conditions
  • Basic first aid care
  • Mass casualty incidents
  • Conducting head-to-toe assessments

Disaster Psychology

  • Self-care and team well-being
  • Working with survivors’ emotional responses

Fire Safety and Utility Controls

  • Firefighting resources
  • Fire suppression safety
  • Hazardous materials

Light Search and Rescue Operations

  • Safety during search and rescue operations
  • Conducting interior and exterior search operations
  • Conducting rescue operations

CERT and Terrorism

  • Preparing your community
  • Active shooter situations
  • HAZMAT and CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive materials)
Helping children prepare for emergencies is just as important as educating parents and other community members about what to do when things go south. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In addition to the basic CERT training that all CERT members must take, FEMA has developed other versions tailored for use with teenagers, and on educational campuses, on Native American Reservations, and in the workplace.


Most people think the main function of a CERT is to provide the volunteers who step in and enable the trained law enforcement, fire, and emergency management professionals to operate where they’ll have the greatest impact. This is true; by answering phones in call centers, providing logistics support or helping to manage traffic they allow the trained professionals to do the front-line work that only they can do.


FEMA has developed tailored versions of its basic CERT training for use by different groups. The folks in this picture have just finished their Teen CERT training. Image from WikiMedia.Org
High school students take part in an emergency disaster drill as part of their ongoing Teen CERT training in their community. Image from
Disasters don’t happen only in daylight, so this CERT is conducting night training to practice skills they already know how to do, but in low light and no light conditions. Image from WikiMedia.Org

But, there is another side to the CERT coin, and that is education. Just like their predecessors with the LAFD, current CERTs also have a mission to educate the general public about what to do during emergencies and how to prepare for them. This is done through a variety of means, all dependent upon how the local organization wants to do things. A common method is setting up booths at local events to pass out informational materials and talk with people about emergency preparedness and how to handle emergency situations they may run into. Another is to host educational seminars and training events, such as holding a Stop The Bleed class to teach people how to handle trauma at scenes like car crashes or industrial accidents. A third is by participating in readiness events held by local agencies to help other agencies exercise their plans and standard operating procedures to see if they are effective.


Once you get your basic CERT training you will have access to training on a wide range of scenarios and missions. These include basic support of professional emergency management personnel, but also:

  • Contact center operations
  • Advanced urban search and rescue
  • Wilderness search and rescue
  • Ham radio communications
  • Anti-terrorism concepts
  • Active shooter response
  • Citizen outreach and education
  • Stop the bleed
  • Advanced first aid


As noted above, by participating in a CERT you will get a wide range of training. You will also work with a variety of other agencies and volunteer groups. If volunteering and helping others is part of your personal DNA, then joining a CERT may open up other opportunities for you, such as getting involved with local search and rescue (SAR) teams or Ham radio clubs who help provide emergency communications when cell service is down or overloaded.


If you know the value of preparedness and want to learn the skills you will need when disasters strike, getting involved in your local CERT is a great idea. It is also a great way to get training that isn’t available elsewhere, and the only cost is your time. If you are one of the first folks to step up to help those around you when disasters or hard times strike, then CERT is a great fit for you as well. Your CERT training and the mindset that comes with it will equip you to help those around you when nobody else knows what to do.

If you feel that you are CERT-ifiable, go out and make it happen. It will be one of the best gifts you can give to yourself … and to your community.






The CERT team at ReadyMarin.Org (Marin County, California) has the following advice on what to put in your CERT backpack… Many CERTs ask what they should add to their CERT backpack after taking the basic training. The goal is to carry necessary items if they are deployed, but keep it from being too heavy. Here are some suggestions that have been offered from our many CERT groups and classes:

• Backpack with vest, helmet, goggles/safety glasses
• N95 face/dust mask
• CERT ID badge – essential and must be up to date.
• Headlamp with extra flashlight and batteries
• Work gloves- make sure they fit YOU and are made of canvas or leather
• Whistle (great idea if you are in trouble and trying to signal your team)
• Marker for marking houses (grease pencil/black crayon is good and available at any hardware store)
• First aid kit with four pairs of latex or nitrile medical gloves
• Triage tags or tape (red, yellow and black flagging ribbon -available at most hardware stores)
• Notepad and pen/pencil
• CERT Field Operations Guide
• Water bottle and two snack bars
• Small container of sun screen
• Knee pads
• Utility tool (4-in-one emergency tool or Leatherman-type multi-tool)


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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