Volunteer unit would respond to disasters


For almost a year, Howard County's Community Emergency Response Network, a committee of law enforcement agencies, nonprofits and other groups, has worked with Howard institutions to develop emergency response plans, given the county's proximity to potential terrorist targets.

Now, the group, called CERN for short, is taking on an additional responsibility: leading the county's new Citizen Corps, a volunteer force that will receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training to respond to potential disasters.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey announced yesterday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has certified CERN as the county's local Citizen Corps council, setting the stage for the group to lead Howard in its efforts to defend against terrorism.

"The Citizen Corps will help tailor actions to our communities and help build on our personal strengths," Robey said.

The goal of Citizen Corps, established as part of the USA Freedom Corps last year, is to develop individuals' skills to make communities stronger so they are prepared to respond to terrorist attacks, natural disasters and public health dangers, said Debbie Wing, spokeswoman for FEMA, which oversees some Citizen Corps programs.

The program could develop a "better resiliency" for Howard residents, said CERN Chairman Richard M. Krieg, who also is president and chief executive officer of Horizon Foundation. CERN and Citizen Corps fit Horizon's mission of supporting health and wellness in Howard County, he said.

Establishing a council is especially important in Howard County, Krieg said, because a number of nearby locations, including the National Security Agency, Fort Meade and Washington, could be potential targets of an attack.

In addition, many of the county's first responders might be mobilized - as they were during the recent sniper attacks - to provide support in nearby counties if events occur there.

Prudent measures

It is more likely that Howard would be affected by "ripples" from an event than an event itself, Krieg said. "Preparedness is warranted by our geographic location," he said.

The group is "taking prudent measures so that the first time we think about these things isn't when it happens," Krieg said.

CERN has 35 members, including Howard's fire, police and health departments, as well as representatives from groups such as the Columbia Association, Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College and Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

The group's focus was "to develop a top-notch training process" for institutions that manage large numbers of people within the county, such as the school system.

Several weeks ago, CERN held a training exercise, called a "tabletop," with Howard County public schools to work through a hypothetical situation - a radiation device detonated in Union Station in Washington.

The program resulted in changes in the schools' emergency plan and sparked further communication with parents. Now, CERN will help establish the Citizen Corps within Howard.

Citizen Corps consists of sev- eral established volunteer programs such as Neighborhood Watch and Volunteers in Police Service.

There are five Citizen Corps in Maryland: Howard, Montgomery, Harford and Frederick counties and District Heights in Prince George's County.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency will coordinate the activities of local councils.

"We now have a capacity to train people and deploy people in times of disaster," said Joseph Herr, chief of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

The training, split into 2- or 2 1/2 -hour blocks, is not as strenuous or time-consuming as training to become a volunteer firefighter, Herr said.

"This is a very basic-level training program," he said.

Volunteers could perform many tasks, including directing traffic in the event of evacuation from either Baltimore or Washington, said Robey.

Using this model, trained volunteers would report to a specific person with a specific job assignment, Herr said, reducing the number of people flocking to a scene trying to offer assistance - a problem at the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.

"The problem that happened in New York City and even other disasters is that people self-deploy. ... There's no structure," Herr said.

He also would like to give trained volunteers credentials so they can enter a scene to provide assistance.

Even if an incident occurs and volunteers are the first responders to an incident, the trained volunteers will report to the Emergency Operations Center as soon as contact can be established, Herr said.

"We don't want to have well-meaning citizens become barriers," Krieg said.

Last year, the county's fire and rescue organization received a Horizon Foundation grant to develop a curriculum for the Community Emergency Response Team, Herr said.

Volunteers will learn disaster preparation, basic fire suppression, first-aid and search and rescue in the 20-hour program, he said.

Krieg hopes to recruit up to 200 volunteers. "The more the citizenry can be trained, the more the citizenry can handle on their own," he said.

Volunteers can sign up at the CERN Web site: www.cern.us

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