‘Pittsburgh … Are You Ready?’ How to volunteer to be a community emergency responder

“The question is how we, as neighborhoods and communities and public safety officials, work together as a team to be able to take care of one another,” Mayor Bill Peduto said.

Pittsburgh Police headquarters.

Pittsburgh Police headquarters.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

It was nightmarish in its scenarios. At times it was encouraging.

But Wednesday’s city-wide public safety meeting in Beechview was nothing if not deliberate in its intent. The theme, after all, was “Pittsburgh … Are you ready?”

Convened by the city’s Department of Public Safety and the Public Safety Zone Councils, the meeting dealt primarily with the emergency preparedness of the city’s 90 neighborhoods and the individuals therein.

Some of those residents were on hand at the meeting, where they consumed a spread of deli sandwiches — hand delivered by Pittsburgh’s finest — and then spent more than two hours listening to their options should disaster befall them. (It was intense, as far as dinner conversations go.)

But “Keep calm and carry on” it was not. In fact, the underlying theme of Wednesday’s meeting would have been closer to “do something and get involved” than anything else.

“It’s not a question of if, but when,” Mayor Bill Peduto told the crowd during brief introductory remarks. “There will come a time when one of the neighborhoods in our city, there will come a time when something bad happens on a very large scale. […] Whether it’s 13 inches of rain, an explosion from a train or a fire that’s beginning to wipe out an entire neighborhood, something will happen that will require coordination, and today we start the discussion of how we work together as one: the community and public safety [officials].”

The discussion that followed, led by four panelists, involved tips for withstanding severe weather events, natural disasters, communication system outages, emergency evacuations and interactions with first responders. (Many of those tips can be found here.)

But it also sought to imbue an “ask-not-what-your-city-can-do-for-you…” spirit and, in the process, spur more volunteer-driven efforts.

Specifically, the city hopes to encourage the formations of additional Community Emergency Response Teams or CERTs here.

“You know your community best,” said Barbara Morello, emergency management planner/CERT program manager with the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

“You know your neighbors best, and with public safety resources spread thin, CERT serves as a dedicated group of volunteers.”

It works like this: A volunteer — civilian or otherwise — undergoes 20 to 30 hours of training over the course of several weeks. Once finished, the idea is that they’re now ready to pitch in when things go sideways. Their emergency contributions can include everything from the management of utilities to putting out small fires, providing basic medical aid, controlling bleeding, and search and rescue efforts.

Pittsburgh has seen about 30 CERT program graduates city-wide since the program’s pilot launched earlier this year, Morello said. Pittsburgh Director of Public Safety Wendell Hissrich said there is currently one city-wide CERT trained and 3 or 4 more localized CERTs ready to be trained.

But Pittsburgh desperately wants more, an urgency only compounded by the recent wave of natural disasters that has swept the U.S. from California to Houston to Puerto Rico.

“We want to spread this out,” Morello added, “because it’s a great free training, and we will keep you engaged, and yours becomes a better prepared community.”

Peduto said something similar in his earlier remarks.

“The question is how we, as neighborhoods and communities and public safety officials, work together as a team to be able to take care of one another. This will be an ongoing discussion,” the mayor added.

“Natural disasters and acts of terrorism and other manmade disasters happen in every city in the world, and every city needs a plan, and every plan has to go beyond public safety officials to the community.”

Anyone interested in training to become a CERT member in Pittsburgh can let city officials know it by visiting this webpage and filling out the form.