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Cape Coral CERT receives Volunteer Agency Service Award

May 31, 2018
By MEGHAN McCOY ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The Cape Coral Community Emergency Response Team has received a Volunteer Agency Service Award for its response during Hurricane Irma.

Emergency Management Coordinator Riley Tuff said they received the award while attending the Governor's Hurricane Conference. The premier event is the largest forum in the nation that focuses on hurricane planning, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation.

"They have an awards ceremony process to recognize outstanding organizations," he explained.

CERT received the Volunteer Agency Service Award for being a volunteer organization that showcased an outstanding contribution in the field. They were selected from among 40 applicants.

"I am so proud to be a part of such an incredible program and work with such dedicated individuals," said Kay Owens, who was among the individuals that accepted the award, in a prepared statement. "We don't do it for the recognition, but receiving this award is such an honor."

The response during Hurricane Irma, efforts to organize themselves into functional response teams, as well as identifying areas of improvement post Irma, and using partnerships with outside agencies to host trainings that addressed their identified needs were among the reasons the Cape Coral CERT Program received the award.

"We have been able to create one of the states and countries most viable and progressive volunteer emergency management programs," Cape Coral Emergency Manager Jesse Spearo said. "We really empower these people to make a difference in this community. They provide their skills, talent and time to do these trainings."

CERT currently has 200 active volunteers in the program that participate in training and special events throughout the year. During Hurricane Irma they had 43 volunteers step up to support emergency operations in the City of Cape Coral, across Lee County and Collier County.

"They went down to Collier County to help establish a POD, Point of Distribution for MREs and water and other emergency kits for people of Collier," Spearo said.

The 43 volunteers called and asked what they could do to help and where they were needed.

"They went and provided a lot of support and assistance for Irma, which was fantastic," Spearo said.

Spearo said although this is their first Florida award, they have been recognized twice by FEMA for individual and community preparedness awards. He said they have been the runner up for the most outstanding community response team initiative award.

"We have also been featured in FEMA's best practice video for CERT programs," he said. "We were selected as one of three programs in the country for FEMA to be recognized as best practices."

Spearo said FEMA came to the city for four days to create a video of their program that was used as a public information media flyer for the national CERT Program.

They have also been asked to participate in a panel for best practice for national volunteer agencies.

Tuff said the members of CERT continue to show up months following Hurricane Irma for monthly training and events.

"They want to learn as well," he said of extending their knowledge beyond responding. "They are learning to prepare, to do outreach to help other people learn to be more aware. We are multifaceted in our usefulness . . . preparing, litigating and recovering from disasters."

Spearo said one of the things about the volunteer program is the leverage, talent and experience that the citizens bring to CERT. He said they are both retired and working professionals from a vast array of careers.

"They want to give back to the community and not have their skills sit idle. They step up and provide that. We are more than happy to do everything possible to provide those opportunities for them here," Spearo said.

Spearo said CERT has graduated more than 2,000 trained members from the community since it began 20 years ago.

Phyllis Thompkins became involved in the Cape Coral CERT program two years ago after moving into the community.

"It's a commitment to the community. The second thing is it's a place you can go and learn a lot about what is going to really happen when things go bad," she said. "It gives you something to do when it does. You are helping put everything back together."

Thompkins was one of the many members who volunteered with Hurricane Irma.

"My background is in the fire department. I'm a retired battalion chief from up north," she said. "I'm kind of used to seeing emergency. It didn't take me by surprise. It feels rewarding for me when you can help others."

Thompkins provided a helping hand at a Fort Myers school that was turned into a shelter. She said she helped by taking people's names, signing them in and getting them registered.

"It's been a fabulous experience. When I was up north I had the opportunity to find out about CERT and work with some of the CERT people. When I cam here and found out that there was CERT I got involved," she said.

In addition to helping out with Hurricane Irma, she said she has also handed out emergency information at such places as Home Depot. Thompkins has also been among a crew of CERT members that have done rehab for firefighters when they work a scene for a long time.

"We put up a tent, have seats and hand out Gatorade, so they don't get overheated," Thompkins said.

Members who go through the CERT program are required to undergo an eight week class, which equates to approximately 24 hours of training. Spearo said individuals go through training on everything from disaster preparedness, search and rescue, medical first-aid and fire suppression.

"We have been able to evolve the program the last two years We do advanced training for them, which includes everything from cars in canals emergency training, to pets and animals in a disaster, disaster psychology, shelter manager training and points of distribution," he said, "to ensure that we have the most prepared citizens in the community."

CERT members are essential because they are the people on the scene witnessing part of the emergency.

"The more people that we have in the community with the basic and advanced skills the greater success we have to respond to saving lives and property," Spearo said.

Those who are interested in joining CERT can call (239) 242-3608. There are four sessions offered throughout the year.

"Every season we offer a new class. We are trying to do some hybrid classes over the course of a couple of weekends instead of a eight week period," he said.

Spearo said they also offer group courses for at least 20 people.

"We will come to your community, organization, your company and provide that training for you for no charge," he said.

CERT also began administering a community CPR program that renders first-aid, as well as lifesaving CPR. Spearo said they are also providing the training for middle school students.

"I think we have trained 250 students so far," he said.



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