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Trained Volunteers Prepare to Respond to Campus Crises

By Paul K. Mueller | October 23, 2006

Here’s a scenario that Phillip Van Saun, manager of Emergency Services at UC San Diego, regularly contemplates:

A heavy, sustained earthquake shakes your building, rattling books and papers out of your bookcase, making the coffee jump from your cup, cracking the glass in your window, and filling the room with fine dust from the ceiling. Lights flicker, then go out; the fire alarm screeches. When the shaking stops, you and your colleagues emerge from under your desks and hurry to leave the building.

Outside, you all mill around, confused and fearful, especially as the tremors continue and it becomes plain that this is a major quake. Some people seem to be hurt. What should you do? Who’s in charge?

UC San Diego Campus Emergency Response Team (CERT) members were active during the campus-wide emergency exercise conducted near the Calit2 building on August 22.

Two people you recognize, wearing bright green vests and distinctive hats, immediately encourage everybody to move to a safe location, and direct others to tend to their injured friends. Using a specialized radio, one calls for medical assistance, while the other explains that food, water, and other supplies are available in designated containers across campus.

They calmly take charge of the situation, help ensure that all wait patiently for the tremors to subside, begin accounting for all building occupants, and otherwise organize an orderly response to the crisis.

All across campus, similar scenes are taking place, with familiar office mates donning highly visible clothing and backpacks and moving swiftly to direct and assist the thousands of students, faculty and staff gathering in uncertain groups. Panic and chaos are averted; medical, fire and police teams go where most needed; campus groups begin working together to evaluate damage; the recovery process is under way.

This crisis-response model of small, decentralized, trained teams, each supervising a building or an area, moves the responsibility for immediate, safe, sensible reaction down to the office, lab or classroom level — where people we know can help us in an emergency.

Those people are members of the Campus Emergency Response Teams (CERT), a university-based offshoot of the city teams already active in neighborhoods across San Diego. They train with their city counterparts in all aspects of crisis-response, are certified, and become familiar with all campus resources available in a crisis.

According to Van Saun, such teams are the smart way to go for communities or large institutions suddenly plunged into crisis. “As recent natural upheavals have made clear,” he says, “citizens can’t afford to wait for external resources in an emergency. City, county, state and federal agencies will be responding to an overwhelming number of appeals for help, and they are forced to address the worst first. That means that we have to be responsible for ourselves, at least in the immediate aftermath.”

Emergency Services, Van Saun’s group, part of the university’s Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) office, is charged with shouldering much of that responsibility — and for distributing it outward and downward across the campus, so that each unit has somebody (or several) who can take charge in a crisis.

Van Saun, who came to UCSD from an emergency-management position in state government, has seen enough incidents and catastrophes — and the various responses to them — to argue persuasively for the CERT model. He and his supervisor, Steve Benedict, convinced campus leaders of the need for trained, decentralized volunteer teams last year.  Following approval by the chancellor and vice chancellors, Benedict and Van Saun arranged for groups of volunteers to enroll in city-sponsored training, where they learn from veteran emergency responders.

In addition, they are acquainted with campus resources — including emergency-supply containers across campus that support the CERT program. Each CERT member has a key for the containers, to ensure that the contents can be quickly and readily available.

And volunteers continually revise or upgrade items that should be stored in the containers. One suggested bikes, in the event that traffic is paralyzed and messages must get across campus; another, spare radio or cell-phone batteries; another, detailed first-aid instructions, in case medical assistance is delayed. The combined ideas and suggestions help planners stock the containers to do the most good in the shortest time.

One such volunteer, now equipped with vest, hat, backpack and a clear sense of what to do in an emergency, is Cheryl Schmitt. For her, taking the training and being ready to respond is based on a sense of responsibility. “We’re responsible for our students,” she says. “They’re in our care.”

Schmitt, a financial assistant for EH&S in Torrey Pines South, cares enough that she’s a member of the Solana Beach CERT, too. “In case of a disaster,” she says, “I believe that being prepared to help others is also the best way to help ourselves. And I have neighbors who may not be able to help themselves — in which case I want to be able to reach out to them in a productive manner.”

She qualified for CERT service by training with the Solana Beach Fire Department, and spent several evenings and several Saturdays gaining hands-on experience in triage, cribbing, first aid, and active search and rescue. “The training impressed me in two ways,” she says. “One, the training is taken seriously. Two, in time of disaster, CERT members will perform tasks that not only help the professional disaster personnel in the area, but also free them up to do what they are trained to do best.”

CERT emphasizes safety, she says, and family first. “By training with CERT, I am taking personal responsibility for my family — and reaching out to neighbors and co-workers here on campus. We cannot depend on outside help to do it for us.”

Schmitt is currently among almost 20 CERT volunteers on campus, and many more are on the list for training and certification.  Van Saun encourages as many to apply as possible. “When we serve others, we encourage others to serve,” he says. “Having several hundred CERT members on campus would certainly reflect our commitment to serve each other, and would provide a great example to our community.”

(If you’re interested in joining a Campus Emergency Response Team, contact Barbara Haynor, emergency services coordinator for EH&S, at 534-3823 or

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