Community ready for emergencies

By Ed Brock and Justin Reedy

They passed the fictional tornado scenario with flying colors and now Morrow's Community Emergency Response Team is ready for the real thing.

At least as ready as they can be.

"We're not professional firefighters but I think we've learned a lot," said Curt Brooks, Delta Air Lines mechanic and CERT member.

Like the city, Clayton County Emergency Management is working on its own disaster preparedness effort through a federal grant program aimed at reducing the effects of such disasters before they happen. That project includes representatives from the county, all of the cities in Clayton County, local disaster relief organizations and community and business leaders.

Morrow's preparations for a disaster include organizing a CERT team that can mobilize in the event of a catastrophe. Some 30 people who live in and around the city have completed the 7-week course on putting out fires, search and rescue and recognizing hazards, skills that will allow them to lend a hand to the professional first responders in times of disaster.

Their final class, held Wednesday night, focused on the law enforcement aspect of their mission with lectures on evidence collection and stealth and surveillance, said Morrow Fire Department Lt. Carl DeMarco, the head instructor for the CERT program.

It wasn't always easy to remember everything they learned when they were put to the test Saturday in the big drill held behind the Morrow Municipal Complex on Morrow Road, CERT member and Morrow City Councilman Tom LaPorte said.

"But we got out here and I think everybody was able to retain information," LaPorte said.

The city and the rest of Clayton County have no shortage of places where disaster can strike, LaPorte added.

"We have the airport, we have the tracks going through the center of town, we have (the) Sherwin Williams (paint facility)? I'm very pleased to have this group active," he said.

For Brooks, the most important lesson he learned was how not to get hurt while undertaking a mission.

"If we're doing a search and rescue and we get hurt, then you have another victim," Brooks said.

The CERT program originated in Los Angeles and has since spread to other communities around the country. Each member received a basic kit that includes a green vest, hard hat or cap that identifies him or her as a CERT member.

Last November DeMarco and Morrow Fire Chief David Wall went to the Emergency Management Institute in the National Fire Academy in Maryland to learn how to teach the class.

DeMarco said other fire departments in the area are looking into starting CERT groups as well, but he believes Morrow's is the only deployable CERT in the area.

And the team's first deployment will be at the city's Summerfest on June 28.

"Each member will have their individual medical kit and individual equipment," DeMarco said. "They'll be assigned to crowd medical ? Basically what they'll do is walk the crowd and look out for medical situations."

The CERT members will have radios with which they can communicate to a stationary post staffed by the full-time firefighters and emergency medical workers. CERT members can also be used for crowd or traffic control.

A CERT team saves the city money and expands the city's preparedness in times of disaster.

"That's just so many more trained people standing here waiting for something that hopefully will never happen," Morrow City Manager John Lampl said.

As a retired deputy sheriff from California and a Vietnam War veteran, 54-year-old Skylark Drive resident Charles Slater said he takes his participation in the program very seriously. And since he's retired he has plenty of time to dedicate to CERT.

"I want to see more training month to month," Slater said. "The more we learn the better we'll be as a team."

DeMarco said he already has several classes planned on topics such as CPR and using heavy equipment to clear debris.

"This is definitely ongoing training," DeMarco said. "We're going to give them as much as they can handle."

The city has also been involved in Clayton County's Hazard Mitigation Planning Team. The purpose of that team, which is being headed by Vac Caldwell of the county Emergency Management department, is to identify possible disasters that could occur in the county and do everything possible to minimize the effects of those disasters.

The team, which is being funded by federal grants through the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, brings together people from across the county n from the fire chiefs of each city in Clayton County to representatives from the county's largest employers, such as the Clorox plant in Forest Park. The project will help the county identify risks from natural and man-made disasters, ranging from severe thunderstorms and tornadoes to a hazardous materials spill.

The team has already completed one of its first steps, Caldwell said, which was researching disasters and mass casualty incidents in the county's past n of which there were few. There have been eight tornadoes in the county since the late 1800s, Caldwell said, and then the Eastern Airlines plane crash in 1941 that killed several people.

"We haven't really had any incidents of catastrophic loss of life in Clayton County's history," he said. "But just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't happen."

For instance, he said, the county has never endured a major earthquake, but since this area of the state is prone to temblors the county should plan for that possibility.

The team has also nearly completed another major step in its project: identifying important buildings and facilities around the county, as well as those in which people congregate. Those buildings would be a high priority for first responders, he explained.

The next step would be getting the disaster history and critical buildings data together, Caldwell said, and using that to identify "problem areas" in the county that could be most hurt by a natural or man-made disaster. The final step is formulating methods to minimize the effects of that disaster on those problem areas n which is what makes this different from existing disaster management plans.

One example of such a disaster mitigation step would be taking a low-lying bridge and raising it to a higher elevation, thereby preventing it from being in danger from a flash flood.

"If we do identify those beforehand, then the disaster won't be as bad if it does happen," he explained.