Responding to Disasters with CERT-Trained Volunteers


Emergency services may not be able to meet overwhelming immediate needs during a disaster. Experience has shown that untrained people who voluntarily help others in these crisis situations oftentimes harm themselves. AmeriCorps members in Dane County, Wisconsin, undergo basic Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training to prepare for disasters in their community and beyond. The main focus is on preventing volunteers from endangering themselves when aiding victims and assisting emergency service providers in disaster situations.


In disaster situations, it is important that volunteers do not endanger themselves while trying to aid others, and that their efforts are truly helpful to emergency service providers.


Effective practices in disaster training and mitigation include the following:

  • AmeriCorps members serving with Operation Fresh Start (OFS) in Dane County, Wisconsin, are trained as Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) responders.
  • OFS AmeriCorps members also receive additional training in CPR/first aid.
  • CERT training begins with an overview of how people can respond to emergencies and then moves on to specialized training in topics such as light search and rescue operations, damage assessment, and fire suppression.
  • The basic CERT program consists of 16 hours usually delivered in 2 1/2-hour sessions, and is available from the Emergency Management Institute to those requesting the skills necessary to be part of emergency preparedness and response. The training consists of the following:

Session 1 - Disaster Preparedness: Addresses hazards to which people are vulnerable in their community. Materials cover actions that participants and their families take before, during, and after a disaster. As the session progresses, the instructor begins to explore an expanded response role for civilians in that they should begin to consider themselves disaster workers. Since they will want to help their family members and neighbors, this training can enable them to operate in a safe and appropriate manner. The CERT concept and organization are discussed as well as applicable laws governing volunteers in that jurisdiction.

Session 2 - Disaster Fire Suppression: Briefly covers fire chemistry, hazardous materials, fire hazards, and fire suppression strategies. However, the main focus of this session is the safe use of fire extinguishers, sizing up the situation, controlling utilities, and extinguishing a small fire.

Session 3 - Disaster Medical Operations (Part I): Participants practice diagnosing and treating airway obstruction, bleeding, and shock by using simple triage and rapid treatment techniques.

Session 4 - Disaster Medical Operations (Part II): Covers evaluating patients by performing a head-to-toe assessment, establishing a medical treatment area, performing basic first aid, and practicing in a safe and sanitary manner.

Session 5 - Light Search and Rescue Operations: Participants learn about search and rescue planning, size-up, search techniques, rescue techniques, and most important, rescuer safety.

Session 6 - Disaster Psychology and Team Organization: Covers signs and symptoms that might be experienced by the disaster victim and worker. It addresses CERT organization and management principles and the need for documentation.

Session 7 - Course Review and Disaster Simulation: Participants review their answers from a take-home examination. Finally, they practice the skills they have learned during the previous six sessions in disaster activity.

After the training, members are able to respond to emergencies in their county and elsewhere in the state.


The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) and the National Fire Academy adopted and expanded the CERT materials, as they found them applicable to all hazards.

The CERT course better prepares individuals to respond to and cope with the aftermath of a disaster. Additionally, if a community wants to supplement its response capability after a disaster, civilians can be recruited and trained as neighborhood, business, and government teams that, in essence, will be auxiliary responders. These groups can provide immediate assistance to victims in their area, organize spontaneous volunteers who have not had the training, and collect disaster intelligence that will assist professional responders with prioritization and allocation of resources following a disaster.

Through training, citizens can manage utilities and put out small fires; treat airway obstruction, control bleeding, and shock in victims; provide basic medical aid; search for and rescue victims safely; and organize themselves and spontaneous volunteers to be effective.

For more information:


Wisconsin Emergency Management

Related Resources: 

Citations: Wisconsin National and Community Service Board. (2003, Spring). Service Sentinel, 3(1). Madison, WI: Author.


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