With fresh memories of Tropical Storm Isabel, the Sept. 11 attacks and the fiery tanker truck crash last month on Interstate 95, Baltimore County firefighters are training a group of residents to help respond to similar emergencies.
The 11-week course, the first of its kind to be offered in Baltimore County, will teach members of the group how to extinguish small fires, shut off utilities, perform first aid and help evacuate their neighborhoods, said James Artis Jr., a county fire specialist who is leading the course at Bloomsbury Community Center in Catonsville.
The group will become a certified Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), able to help emergency workers perform search-and-rescue operations, triage victims in a disaster and direct rescue crews to the most pressing needs in the area, Artis said.
"We need our communities to be partners in our response," said Elise Armacost, a Fire Department spokeswoman. "No one knows a neighborhood - the alleys, the back way to get there, whether the elderly woman in the corner house needs help - better than the residents who live in the community."
The 18 residents enrolled in the class include government workers, community activists and a high school student.
"I really felt like this was something I can do to help," said Geoffrey Baker, a multimedia developer from Oella who expects to use the training at some point.
"I took a CPR class and I've used that twice."
At Thursday evening's class, Artis outlined the material CERT will cover, including basics, such as how to assemble a disaster kit, and more specialized skills, such as how to assess a victim's injuries.
Next week, a firefighter will show the class how to operate a fire extinguisher. Another week, Health Department officials will discuss ways to relieve stress among disaster victims. One week, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials will show the class how to shut off a gas line and deal with a downed electrical line.
The final session, not yet scheduled, will give the class a chance to practice for a disaster. Artis said the CERT class might help respond to a simulated light rail crash as part of a regional drill.
The team is designed to augment emergency personnel stretched thin by a disaster.
During a major crash, for example, team members might have to perform first aid on a neighbor because the nearest emergency crews are busy rescuing accident victims. During a flood, the team might help staff a shelter.
The CERT concept was developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985 to train people to meet their own emergency needs for several days after a major earthquake.
Federal emergency officials adapted the curriculum so other communities could offer the training.
"The L.A. Fire Department felt in a major earthquake - the proverbial Big One - there wouldn't be enough firefighters to save everyone," said Joe Bills of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"The thinking was, if neighbors could help each other in those first few hours with first aid and removing debris, more people would be saved."
For more than 10 years, FEMA has been training local officials on the CERT text, Bills said.
There are more than 900 CERT teams across the country, with the numbers rising after the Sept. 11 attacks and the White House call for a Citizen Corps, he added.
"We haven't seen this level of involvement since people were serving as air-raid wardens and civil defense coordinators," said Lt. Richard Muth, director of Baltimore County's Office of Emergency Management. "Somewhere along the way, though, we lost the community piece of it. ... Maybe we're going back to that."
Muth said he's hopeful that other communities will be interested in CERTs once the word spreads about what they are and the benefits of having them.
In Harford County, a Baptist church has sponsored a team, and the county plans to begin another CERT class in the spring, said James E. Massey, CERT coordinator for Harford County.
An orientation meeting is scheduled for March 23.
"We may not have a terrorist attack or an earthquake here," he said, "but we're hoping our citizens are prepared to help themselves until emergency personnel can get to them. For example, learning to operate a fire extinguisher is something everyone should know how to do."
Sharon Glass, a computer scientist who is taking the CERT class in Catonsville, said she realized how important first aid and emergency training could be after Sept. 11 and after Tropical Storm Isabel left many of her neighbors without power.
"One of the things that stuck in my mind," she said, "was that people who knew what to do were really able to help."