By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

The Sandy Springs Fire Department maintains a state of constant readiness, racing up and down Roswell Road nearly every day, but what would happen if the city were struck by a disaster that overwhelmed its emergency personnel?

Fire Capt. Kareem Fannin, a crew chief at Station 4 on Wieuca Road, facilitates citizen training in the city’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program.

“It’s not wise to just rely on other people for everything,” he said. “You can’t always count on us to be there right away because we can be affected, too. If a tornado comes through Sandy Springs, it doesn’t know the difference between a fire station and a house.”

The CERT program includes three days of training. All participants get a backpack containing a first-aid kit, goggles, gloves, a filter mask, a safety vest, a hard hat, a multipurpose tool, duct tape and a flashlight.

Trainees spend the first two days of training in class. On the third day, Fannin said, “a scenario is given and, everything they learn in the lecture, it’s time to carry it out in the exercise.”

Thirty people have participated in the program. Individuals can sign up, and companies or organizations such as neighborhood homeowner associations can send groups. The three training days don’t have to be consecutive.

The participants learn a variety of skills that Fannin called “the basic fundamentals of how they can take care of themselves until we can get there and also take care of their neighbors.”

During the emergency medical services portion of the program, instructors teach how to assess a patient’s condition, apply a splint, treat shock and open airways.

They teach how to identify terrorist threats and about “disaster psychology,” or the mental implications of catastrophes. “Everybody doesn’t handle seeing a dead body the same way,” Fannin said. “That’s not for everybody.”

Light search-and-rescue skills and fire safety are two aspects central to the training.

Participants learn how to make a decision about whether to enter a damaged structure. Once inside, they have to know how to use whatever is available to help anybody there. A 2-by-4 or an unhinged door could be the only objects with which to rescue a trapped person.

“They’re not going to go out with tools. They’re going to have a basic backpack, but they’re going to have to use items in the environment. … They have to make it work,” Fannin said.

CERT program trainees have an opportunity to extinguish a controlled fire and are taught “what types of fires they can actually be effective on.” They also learn how to organize themselves into a team by creating an “incident command system.”

“They have to have a plan before they go out,” Fannin said.

Shelia Staton, who works for the city’s Department of Community Development, participated in the CERT program. She also is an amateur radio operator who participates in North Fulton Amateur Radio Emergency Services.

“It was great,” she said. “They teach you how to be safe and take care of yourself so you can help others. If you’re injured, then you can’t.”

She added: “I would recommend it to anybody. What to me was so moving was that they had paramedics talk to us about the types of things we’ll see and the fact that we’ll have to put ourselves out of the way to help people. There are always two people that go to fight a fire — considering if it’s something small enough that we can do.”

Fannin said it’s important for people to know how to “do something for yourself rather than just sit on your hands, because every minute counts.”

“People want to help. They just need to know what to do,” he said. “When you see people not helping or assisting, it’s because they just don’t know what to do.”