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A new program in Galax teaches citizens emergency skills necessary to keep their families safe and take care of their neighbors during crisis situations.
A $6,000 grant from Homeland Security funds the nationwide Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, which pays for training for the instructors and equipment to teach the course.
“This program allows citizens to become trained in taking care of their family and prepared to reach out to the community,” said the city’s grants administrator, Brenda Marrah, who applied for the grant early last year. “[Galax Police Chief] Rick Clark was interested in pursuing this because of its benefits during disasters.”
Marrah said the city is looking for citizens untrained in emergency fields to take these courses, which will enable them to help themselves, their families and neighbors during emergencies.
“Here, we’re designated as high risks for forest fires, and we have terrible snow storms,” she said. “If we had a real disaster, it’s great to have extra eyes and ears to help the first responders.”
At times when emergency personnel have their hands full caring for citizens, residents will gain the skills necessary to help others.
Galax Police Sgt. Chris Brown, who acts as coordinator of the program, said that during the Labor Day weekend storms last year, the police department was staffed with only about five or six patrol cars during the day of the heaviest flooding. About 12 roads were blocked with fallen trees, and police could have used citizens to help direct traffic.
“We’re not immune to natural and manmade disasters,” said Brown. “And we don’t have enough staff to handle major events. By training volunteers, this helps us get services to the community quicker.”
Participants will take a 24-hour course, made up of nine units covering disaster preparedness, fire safety, disaster medical operations, search and rescue operations, disaster psychology, terrorism and disaster simulation.
The program is not limited to age or physical ability.
“We’re looking for citizens with good common sense that would be willing to lend a helping hand,” she said. “This is a grassroots movement to get the average citizen to help out their community. We hope we get everyone from students to retirees.”
The Citizens Corps Council, which oversees the program, along with subcommittees — consisting of representatives from local emergency departments, local radio stations, the Red Cross and other areas — have been meeting frequently, said Marrah, to discuss and prepare to implement the program in Galax. And about seven people, also made up of first responders, have undergone training in CERT to teach the course.
The concept for the national CERT program began in 1985 with the Los Angeles Fire Department. A couple of years later, the area was hit by an earthquake and confirmed the need for training citizens to help during disasters.
Since 1993, 28 states have conducted CERT training.
It is designed to answer questions, such as “What can I do?” and “How can I help?” and to prepare citizens of all abilities to prepare, train and volunteer for every type of natural and manmade hazard.
While this program covers Galax, in the event of a disaster CERT volunteers may be called to respond to state disasters, due to its certification under the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Marrah said the city has applied for another round of funding to cover expenses to teach the course to the next group of citizens.
• The first set of classes will be Tuesday and Thursday evenings (March 20, 22, 27 and 29) from 6-10 p.m. and one Saturday (March 31) from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Citizens can register by calling Sgt. Chris Brown at 236-8101, or through the Galax-Grayson EMS website, galaxgraysonems.com, beginning Jan. 17. The deadline to register is March 10.
Registrants must be Galax residents or have a vested interest in Galax and be at least 18 years old. Bilingual residents are strongly urged to apply.
Participants must be willing to commit to the class time and schedule because students must attend a full course to become certified.
Class size is limited, and the courses are free. A second set of CERT classes will be held in May.