Engaging At-Risk Youth Utilizing the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Training as a Harm Reduction Tool

Sunday, 27 July 2014: 11:10 AM

Shamika Tishema Ossey, RN, BSN, PHN
Community Health Services/Service Planning Area 6, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Los Angeles, CA
Sharon E. Sylvers-Sidney, RN, BSN, PHN, MPA
Community Health Services, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Los Angeles, CA

If a disaster were to strike right now in Los Angeles County, 27 teens in Watts would be among those prepared to respond. This project is part of Los Angeles County’s preparedness and sustainability efforts focused on community engagement and getting to know one’s neighbors in order to plan together and be ready for emergencies. Based on recent disasters, it has been shown that communities that know each other and prepare together are better able to survive the event and recover more quickly afterward.

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) concept was developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) in 1985. The Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987 underscored the area-wide threat of a major disaster in California and confirmed the need for training civilians to meet their immediate needs. As a result, the LAFD created the Disaster Preparedness Division with the purpose of training citizens and private and government employees. However, in its 25 years of existence, the program never got the opportunity to deliver its vital content with teens in one of the most incident-prone areas of the City.

South Los Angeles (Watts), a community known for its determination to bounce back from the onslaught of drugs, guns and civil unrest. A community with 67.8 violent crimes reported per 10,000 residents (278 violent crimes in a 6-month period). A community well-known for the number of young black men going to jail than going to Yale. A community where young people are cautious to walk two blocks in a direction that might land them in another “territory”--and into the line of unfriendly fire. A community where police chases through residential areas is experienced far too often. A community where in 2006, public housing residents had to wait over a week for help when local flash flooding occurred, bringing water 2-3 feet high into the homes of public housing residents.

Times are changing and a new breed of community activists and partners, The Watts Gang Task Force, has arisen to give young people hope and a vision of what can be –beyond their two blocks. This Task Force opened their eyes and ears to a National Preparedness Month presentation at their local city councilman’s office in September 2012, which focused on preparing the next generation.  Within 4 short months, members from the Task Force and other interested partners (representing community residents, fire, police, public health, nongovernmental, faith and business)  came together to design, promote, launch and implement the first-ever Teen CERT program for youth in the “high-risk” area of Watts, South Los Angeles.

In February 2013, the West and South Area Health Office spearheaded and implemented the first Teen Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Training Program in South Los Angeles. The objective of the Teen CERT Training Program is to build community resiliency in the Watts community of South Los Angeles targeting youth who are residents of four Los Angeles City Housing Authority Developments (Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens, and Gonzaque Village).  

The Teen CERT program was envisioned, planned and implemented by Service Planning Area (SPA) 5 & 6 Area Health staff (Shamika Ossey, PHN and Sharon Sylvers, PHN) in collaboration with the US Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), City of Los Angeles Fire Department, City of Los Angeles Housing Authority, Women of Imperial Court, Watts Gang Task Force, Council of Pakistan American Affairs, 7-eleven Corporation, Los Angeles City Council District 15 (Office of Councilman Joe Buscaino) and the American Red Cross.

The CERT Program is a viable mechanism to ensure that communities are able to prepare for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate future impacts from natural and manmade hazards. Anecdotal information from both City and County CERT programs indicate that there are fewer CERT-trained individuals in South Los Angeles despite a significant community interest.

The South LA Teen CERT Program was an opportunity to model how CERT training can increase preparedness and resilience in vulnerable communities in the County and nationally. It also serves to highlight the importance of collaboration across governmental, community and private agencies in order to achieve successful community development. Training modules included Earthquake Awareness, Disaster Fire Suppression Techniques, Disaster Medical Operations, Multi-Casualty Incidents, Light Search and Rescue Operations, Team Organization & Disaster Psychology, and Terrorism & Homeland Defense. Additional skill building activities included an American Red Cross Community CPR & First Aid Certification Course facilitated on May 11, 2013.

Twenty seven students completed the training and received certificates and commendations at the Teen CERT graduation ceremony held on April 20, 2013. Over 100 people were in attendance. Dignitaries who spoke during the ceremony included Jackie Lacey (Los Angeles County District Attorney), Joe Buscaino (Los Angeles City Councilman, District), Ron Fisher (2nd Supervisorial District Field Office Staff), Dr. Jannah Scott (US Department of Homeland Security, A Center of the White House Office of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships), Dr. Jan King (Area Health Officer for West and South Los Angeles) and Dr. Alonzo Plough (Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Program). 

The teens now have the skills and ability to organize a CERT team, join an existing one in their community and increase the resilience of their community against the impacts of natural and manmade disasters.  Area Health Office staff, Ms. Ossey and Ms. Sylvers, are now CERT trained and certified CERT Trainers. Next steps for the Area Health Office include continuing Teen CERT programming in South Los Angeles and creating a novel Mobile CERT program which will include bicycle and equestrian teams.

As a result of its successful program model, innovation, and comprehensive collaborative component our planning team was  the Third Annual Recipient of the John D. Solomon Whole Community Preparedness Award (highest national preparedness award) on September 23, 2013 at the White House during its annual FEMA 2013 Individual and Community Preparedness Award Ceremony. In addition, our efforts have been recognized by President Obama and The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. House of Representatives, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles City Council, and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.