SLIDESHOW: Preparing for disaster
Victims of a major earthquake descended on the Westlake Fire Station in Lake Oswego on Saturday, bloodied and broken and crying out for help.
Emergency responders in bright orange vests and green hard hats quickly put out fires, turned off utilities, lifted a concrete slab off one victim and brought a dozen more to the station from a four-story structure that was in total darkness and complete disarray.
Fortunately, no one died. And more importantly, no one was really hurt, either, because it was all a drill — a graduation exercise-of-sorts for the latest participants in the city's Community Emergency Response Team training.
The Lake Oswego Fire Department conducts CERT classes twice a year. The goal, says Fire Marshal Gert Zoutendijk, is to prepare city officials and residents to take care of themselves and their neighborhoods for at least 72 hours post-disaster.
First responders aren't going to be able to reach everyone when an earthquake hits, Zoutendijk says. At any one time, only 13 Lake Oswego firefighters are on duty to cover a population area of 50,000 people. Communication will be sporadic at best, and it will be days — or maybe longer — before first responders can peel away from the biggest priorities to reach neighborhoods in need.
"People are going to be on their own," Zoutendijk says. "And if they have no skills or no clue what to do, it's going to get worse."
That's where CERT training comes in.
More than 2,000 people have completed classes and been certified in community emergency response since the seven-week sessions were first offered in Lake Oswego in 1995. The classes, which are limited to 30 people and fill up quickly, are based on one of LOFD's basic tenets: to do "the most amount of good for the most amount of people."
With that in mind, Zoutendijk, Deputy Fire Marshal David Smith, Fire Chief Larry Goff and a cadre of firefighters show participants how to have the greatest impact on the community and assist as many people as possible.
"The primary function of these classes," Zoutendijk says, "is to teach them to take care of themselves and their neighbors."
CERT sessions address a wide variety of natural disasters — large earthquakes, major floods, windstorms, tornadoes — that could tear apart neighborhoods, destroy infrastructure, knock out the city's power and leave many residents to fend for themselves.
Each of the three-hour sessions strives to answer the myriad of questions that could arise during a catastrophe. If you discovered someone pinned beneath rubble or debris, would you know the proper method of saving them? How do you sensitively handle working with someone who has been traumatized?
Classes focus on how to plan for a disaster, how to search for victims, how to provide medical assistance (employing basic treatments for various injuries and conducting head-to-toe assessments) and fire suppression strategies — all skills that can save and sustain lives until police and firefighters arrive. Two sessions address leadership and the need to identify, sort and assign responsibilities.
And then in a final disaster exercise like the one that was held on Saturday, participants get a chance to apply what they've learned in a simulated earthquake that can feel very, very real.
Screaming victims in full makeup — the handiwork of the LOFD's Karen Carnahan and CERT graduate Libet Streiff — look like they have broken bones, terrible burns and worse. A frantic woman pleads with first responders to save trapped children, while live power lines crackle and fires burn. And newly trained CERT students have to quickly decide what to do and who to help first.
It can be unnerving, participants say. But Zoutendijk says the lessons are invaluable.
"There is reassurance," he says, "when you are prepared."