DALTON, Ga. — So many volunteers turned out to help search for a missing teenager in 2009 that local emergency officials decided to tap into that passionate manpower with the formation of a CERT program in Whitfield County the next year.
Ten years later, the Whitfield County Community Emergency Response Team is celebrating a decade of service from more than 300 graduates of the program.
“The community really came together and wanted to help us with that search in 2009,” said Amy Ramsey of the Whitfield Emergency Management Agency. “After more than 200 people showed up to help out, we realized the volunteers actually needed a little more training and a little more specific tasking to make them more effective.”
That’s where CERT entered the picture. Ramsey and fellow 911 workers Jeff Ownby and Carla Maton attended Train the Trainer sessions to learn how to organize a local program, which has been significantly funded through state grants, and they hit the ground running with 19 students in Academy 1 in June 2010.
“The idea of the whole program is, first, preparedness, getting the community prepared for a disaster,” Ownby said back then, a message he’s repeated numerous times during the ensuing 10 years. “Then we tell them, ‘If you’re OK, can you check on your family? Your family’s OK. Well, now can you check on your neighbor?’ That’s kind of our message. Then the last phase as we try to build the program is that we actually have some trained responders who can help out in times of some major emergency in the community.”
With each passing Academy, Whitfield County has built up an impressive number of CERT graduates, with the total hitting 309 after 18 sessions, with Academy 19 slated to begin at the end of February.
Since 2020 is a leap year, Ramsey and Ownby are asking local residents to devote their “extra” day in February as part of the two-day session where they will learn how to help their families and their community in case of a disaster. It’s not too late to sign up for the free session, set for Feb. 29 and March 1, by calling (706) 259-3730 or visiting https://forms.gle/CtK22Gz4vT7E6JZS9.
CERT includes classroom and hands-on training in preparedness, fire safety, disaster, medical and triage, safety and rescue, and more.
While Whitfield County has been fortunate to escape major disasters since CERT formed, members of the group have been called on to help out after tornadoes struck in two neighboring counties (Catoosa and Gordon). They’ve also been busy in other ways over the years, helping hand out free weather radios (when available through grant funding) to local residents, for example.
The local program has also earned a bit of a sterling reputation statewide during that time, with four local CERT Volunteers of the Year going on to win state honors. Back in 2011, shortly after helping out with the tornado recovery efforts in Catoosa County, CERT graduates used that real-world experience to give them an edge at the Georgia CERT Rodeo, where they placed first in most divisions.
Sharing their knowledge with others has likewise been a big part of the local CERT program, with Whitfield County officials helping start up or revive other programs in the area.
While the curriculum is pretty much the same nationwide, local officials have made a few changes to their sessions over the years, responding to current events, including the addition of CRASE (Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events) and Stop the Bleed training that shows the proper use of tourniquets, for instance.
CERT members also help out in other ways.
During the recent one-day snow event in Whitfield County, Ramsey sent out notices to CERT members, asking them to measure the snow at their house “because they’re scattered across the community so we could find out how much snow fell in each section of the county,” she said.
Another notification went out a few days later, asking CERT members to report any flooding they might encounter and send pictures.
Reflecting on the past decade, Ramsey said she is proud of the past 10 years with CERT and is thankful for all those who became more prepared, and grateful for those who have volunteered.
“It’s a good benchmark, 10 years,” Ownby said. “I feel like we’ve had a great program, very successful, and will have for many years to come, hopefully. We appreciate the support of the county commissioners and all the people who have volunteered for CERT.”