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Classes teach disaster readiness

Free and low-cost training can help firms cope with emergencies before police and fire personnel arrive.

September 22, 2008|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

Local emergency responders are offering disaster preparation training priced just right for small-business owners: It costs little or nothing.

They hope the lifesaving skills they teach will help more people cope with a major disaster when help from police, fire or medical personnel may be unavailable for hours or days.

"If you can be prepared, then when disaster hits you are not going to be a victim, you are going to be part of the solution," said Capt. Jeff Vrooman of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who coordinates Community Emergency Response Team training for the department.

That message is getting a boost during September, which is National Disaster Preparedness Month. Disaster preparation is getting even more attention because of the recent hurricanes, the Chino Hills earthquake and the Midwest flooding.

Small-business owner Jeff Edelstein took the training in the early 1990s and has taken the recommended twice-a-year refresher courses since then. Edelstein credits the classes with helping him organize a safe evacuation of his neighborhood during the Chatsworth fire three years ago.

"You don't want to practice when a disaster happens," said Edelstein, who employs 14 people at SOS Survival Products Inc. in Van Nuys. "Make your mistakes in a drill and learn from those mistakes."

Still, for busy small-business owners, committing time to prepare for a potential problem can take a back seat to dealing with more immediate concerns.

Disaster preparation can seem overwhelming. Trying to help small-business owners and other citizens get a handle on how to prepare and what to do during and after an emergency is the goal of the Community Emergency Response Team program.

"The people that go through our program deal much better with disasters," said Capt. Stacy Gerlich of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, which developed the program in the mid-1980s. "There is less anxiety; they feel better able to handle themselves than other people."

Training usually is free through fire departments, including those in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Others, including some cities, may charge a small fee, often $30 to $50, to cover the cost of the manual and emergency supply kits. For-profit companies also perform the training.

Instructors, often firefighters, teach the classes, which stretch over 20 hours. County firefighters lead the seven-week training program that started Thursday at Rowland Heights' Schabarum Regional Park, which volunteered its conference center for the 35-student class.

Trainees learn how to assess their workplace (or home or school) for potential hazards during a disaster. They learn basic fire suppression skills. They are taught how to triage -- assess and sort -- injured people by the severity of their conditions. They learn how to handle life-threatening injuries.

A section is devoted to simple search-and-rescue operations. And the course includes classes on disaster psychology and how to organize volunteer teams. Graduates will have learned how to gather information for professional emergency response teams and how to assist them if necessary.

The course will end with a disaster simulation exercise.

"We are empowering them with skills and knowledge to be able to take action after a disaster," Vrooman said.

Don't be intimidated by the course, advised emergency consultant Nancy Mathews of Los Angeles. The intent isn't to put you in a situation in which you have to act like a hero.

She took the training when she worked at Warner Bros.

"One of the most dramatic and comforting things was to learn how to assess a situation and say, 'No, I don't have the resources it would take to go in there safely and execute a rescue,' " said Mathews, also a former disaster-response manager at Universal Studios.

The Los Angeles City Fire Department created the program in 1985. In 1993, the Federal Emergency Management Agency made the training available nationwide.

The Community Emergency Response Team training program remains locally run. The Los Angeles City Fire Department, with the largest response team staff in Southern California, has 10 full-time trainers. It graduates about 4,000 people a year, Gerlich said.

"We can train more," she said, but marketing dollars to get the word out are scarce.

Vrooman said his program, which expects to train about 1,500 individuals this year, might feel a budget pinch as the grants it has relied on have slowly "gone away." The Community Emergency Response Team and its message of citizen preparedness was a federal focus after 9/11, but that has faded, Vrooman said.

Even without big marketing bucks, the training teams have been set up in more than 200 California cities, counties, schools and other organizations.

Similar programs for high school and college students have started. For more information on these and other local programs, go to

For a national view go to

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