Miami relaunching disaster response training for community members

The fire department is recruiting volunteers to be taught team coordination, preparedness, first aid and light search and rescue skills


Joey Flechas
Miami Herald

MIAMI — Before firefighters and police arrive at the scene in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster, it is neighbors who are out first assessing damage and giving each other a hand.

The city of Miami is bringing back a federally funded program to train and equip a Community Emergency Response Team that can offer immediate assistance to residents in their neighborhood when a disaster strikes.

Linda Williams, a Coconut Grove resident, has been a member of her neighborhood Community Emergency Response Team for years. She encouraged people to register for the training at an event Thursday outside City Hall to mark the relaunch of the city's CERT program with new federal funds.
Linda Williams, a Coconut Grove resident, has been a member of her neighborhood Community Emergency Response Team for years. She encouraged people to register for the training at an event Thursday outside City Hall to mark the relaunch of the city's CERT program with new federal funds. (Photo/Joey Flechas/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service)

The program was not offered in the past few years because the vast majority of emergency funding and personnel were steered toward the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with $170,000 from the U.S. government, the city will offer the training program this summer. The first training in late July will take place at the city’s fire training facility in Coconut Grove, but future classes will be held in neighborhoods across the city.

Robert Hevia, an assistant fire chief who serves as the city’s emergency manager, said Miami firefighters have seen neighbors be the first ones at the scene following a storm, even if roads are blocked and power lines are down. Hevia stressed that the CERT team does not take the place of firefighters and police, but helps coordinate getting resources and personnel to communities faster.

The program includes three eight-hour training sessions, Hevia said, with the first round scheduled in late July and more classes expected in the future. The fire department will be recruiting trainees through June and July. Volunteers receive backpacks with supplies and helmets, and they’re taught how to coordinate with other team members to prepare for storms beforehand, address the needs of their homes and families first, and then check on neighbors. Team members are taught disaster preparedness, light search and rescue skills and first aid.

The program, announced at a press conference outside City Hall on Thursday, is intended to prepare residents to respond to natural or man-made disasters and other crises including acts of terrorism.

Linda Williams, a Coconut Grove community advocate and trained member of her community’s team for years, recalled her last service for the team in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“Not knowing that my own house was damaged, I was out reaching my neighbors to see if they were okay,” Williams said. “So please, sign up. It’s a worthy cause. It’s a mission that is life-saving and you feel so good when you know you’ve helped somebody else.”

Hevia, who is a member of South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2, said he saw firsthand the importance of CERT tactics in the days after storm surge from Hurricane Michael devastated the city of Mexico Beach in Florida’s panhandle — and local residents weren’t even formally trained in emergency response.

A group of neighbors had gone door-to-door before the storm hit, making a list of those who evacuated and those who planned to stay. Operating out of City Hall, the neighbor group was able to provide crucial information to search-and-rescue crews when they arrived. Hevia said CERT training teaches neighbors how to organize and collect this type of information, which is invaluable to emergency managers.

“When you get there, and it’s just rubble, you don’t know where you’re going or what’s going on,” Hevia said. “They gave us a map of where the streets were, and landmarks. They gave us the information that we needed to be successful in finding people.”

Mayor Francis Suarez, who sponsored a resolution supporting the program, toured a trailer that contained supplies purchased for the program, including helmets, radios, generators and other first-response items.

“The CERT program provides the necessary training so that anyone can provide assistance when it matters the most,” Suarez told reporters.

The city wants to set up emergency response locations, or “resilience hubs,” in different neighborhoods that are stocked with water, ice, and other necessities so CERT teams and the city’s emergency personnel have outposts closer to residents. Commissioners on Thursday approved spending $779,000 from a state grant to renovate the Carrie P. Meek Center at Charles Hadley Park in Liberty City, so it can function as a resilience hub.

People who live and work in the city of Miami are eligible to apply for the training program. The application is available on the city’s website, www.miamigov.com. Questions can be emailed to miamicert@miamigov.com, or call 305-416-5439.

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©2022 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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