Niagara Gazette — Both natural and manmade disasters have become daily or weekly news recently. This area has been fortunate in recent years, but there's still a group of people who are trained to make a major difference in the immediate wake of such a situation.
They're normal people in their day-to-day lives, many living next door or across the street. But it's these volunteers which could save lives before any police, firefighter or emergency medical technician arrives on scene, and they're often the ones who, working with these first responders, provide much of the disaster management at its most basic level.
From distributing blankets and food to helping organize crowds for administration, these volunteers have joined CERT – Community Emergency Response Team – and other formal programs. But they all need training, which is why Niagara University is hosting the sixth annual Citizen and Community Preparedness Conference beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday in the Castellani Art Center.
"We really want the volunteers to be able to work with emergency managers in their towns to become community assets in case of emergencies," Dana Estrada, executive director of Border Community SERVICE, said. "These programs help them hone their skills, they learn new topics, And for those who are just community members, the conference provides ways to better prepare you for experiencing these situations first-hand."
Programs like CERT have seen a defined increase in participation since 2002, when then-President George W. Bush brought together disaster relief under the umbrella known as the Homeland Security Administration following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
Since then, responses from community members have been most notable during both Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast and Hurricane Sandy this past October. Locally, CERT played a vital role following the October surprise storm in 2006, as well as the H1N1 flu outbreak of 2009, Estrada said, with volunteers assisting with cleanup, welfare checks and point of dispensing administration.
Of course, handling situations like massive emergencies requires training in an effort to build a team of individuals who are unblinking in the eye of potential mass casualty. Estrada said these CERT members have to keep up to date every year, which is why the conference is held.
"These individuals do 30 hours in instruction, from hands-on to classroom sessions, each year, which enables them to become a volunteer cadre should this area ever become a disaster zone," she said.
The conference features a wide variety of speakers with varying specialties. First responders, including a pair of Town of Tonawanda police officers, are expected to be on hand, as is Joann Sands, clinical instructor for the University at Buffalo's School of Nursing.
Dr. Nicole R. Gerber, emergency and safety program manager of Occupational and Environmental Safety at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, is also expected and will talk about bringing the community together as a whole.
She's basically there to explain how CERT members can play a vital role, explaining how teams of volunteers make recovering from occasions like Sandy possible.
"When you think of Hurricane Katrina, it was really the volunteers who helped initially get the community back on its feet," she said. "It really does take the whole community to effectively respond to emergencies."
Though this conference is free and open to the public, organizers have asked for interested parties to register. To do so, either call Estrada at 205-0075, Gail Struzik at 205-0077 or go online to www.niagara.edu/conference-registration. A deadline for joining has been set for Thursday.Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.