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Search-and-rescue training session teaches community members how to help in an emergency

SUBMITTED PHOTO: DONNA HERRON - Portland Fire Bureau Station 18 Captain Gerard Pahissa teaches skills to search and rescue training participants.

As the wake of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption metastasized, Donna and Kim Herron faced contrasting circumstances.

While Kim sat safely in his Washington State University dorm room, eventually conspiring to sneak outside to grab beer, Donna learned about the eruption from an air traffic control center as she piloted a plane above the Rocky Mountains on a trip from Spokane to Montana. Unable to find a safe landing spot, she braved a thick cloud of ash and landed in Missoula safely.

Though they weren't left devastated by the earthquake's onslaught, for the Herrons and many around the Pacific Northwest, the event was eye-opening. They realized just how unprepared they were for a natural disaster or emergency.

"Right before that, (the media and public officials) were talking about seismic activity. I don't remember them talking about emergency preparedness," Donna says.

More than three-and-a-half decades later, the Herrons joined with Portland Fire Bureau Station 18 and Habitat for Humanity on Aug. 12 to help train community members for another natural disaster. The training sessions, which are held at the United Methodist Church on Southwest Taylors Ferry Road, take place every other month, and all Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET)-certified Portlanders can participate.

Donna is passionate about the issue of emergency preparedness. She is the president of the Markham Neighborhood Association (Kim is the vice president), taught emergency preparedness at neighborhood association meetings and also was the Southwest Portland Public Safety Chair until last year.

"If we could get the majority of the homes to be basically prepared, our team would be able to serve our neighborhood fairly easily. But they aren't prepared," she says. "It's our job, our neighborhood's jobs, to get as many people prepared as possible."

She helped organize the training sessions and asked Habitat for Humanity, which owns the former church's property, if she could use the church as a training ground. Habitat officials agreed, and the sessions commenced.

The Aug. 12 session included stations where participants learned how to grid off and search ravaged areas, breach a door or break an easily accessible window to enter a home, evaluate and treat those afflicted with injuries, search a blackened church with flashlights and helmets, organize people into groups based on the seriousness of their injury and perform inventories of neighborhoods so that firemen can prioritize the most serious emergencies.

The participants included NET-certified community members who wanted to maintain their certification and to gain extra skills beyond what was taught during the NET-certification process. A background check, an online test and field training are required to earn NET certification by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management.

"For the teams that are currently NET certified, it's good that we continue to give them challenges and opportunities to engage them in order to keep their interest," Dinna says. "Our lives are so busy that if we don't make an effort to do things, it gets put on the back burner. The further you get away from it, the less important it is."

NET members are responsible during an emergency for assisting their less-skilled neighbors and holding off potential hazards until first responders arrive. For example, the Herrons were deployed during the recent windstorm that brought down power lines across the metro area and during a natural gas explosion that leveled buildings in Northwest Portland.

"We are there to hold the situation until we're relieved by the fire bureau or ambulances or National Guard or whoever is more qualified than we are," Kim says. "They'll either say we need to stay and help or, 'Thank you very much. You can go home now.'"

Donna stresses that NET members don't have to be a part of the neighborhood team. Just receiving the certification and being self-sufficient and potentially able to assist neighbors is helpful. She also says the elderly may not possess the strength to perform heavy lifting, but they can still receive certification and be useful in emergency situations — particularly with communications.

"They don't have to be part of a team if they don't want to be. Just the fact that they get trained shows them that if we did have an incident, they would be able to take care of themselves and their family and maybe a neighbor," she says.

However, the Markham NET team does skew old, she adds, and that could be an issue moving forward.

"We need to have more young people, and that's been the challenge — to find young people who are willing to give part of themselves for the benefit of a neighbor that they don't even know," Donna says.

The Herrons say that overall interest in NET certification has increased in recent years, but that there aren't enough trainers to prepare those seeking training. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler recently approved a budget increase for the City's Bureau of Emergency Management for emergency response training programs, which Donna says will help expedite the NET certification training process.

During the Aug. 12 class, Donna taught the search grid station and trained a NET-certified participant to do the same.

"Interest in NET is definitely ramping up," she says. "Where they have run into a bottleneck is having enough qualified people to teach it. There are applicants on the waiting list and they are trying to get them taught."

The Markham neighborhood consists of just over a thousand homes, and there are currently 12 NET-certified members.

"If we do have a disaster, we're not going to be able to help that many homes because there's not enough of us," Donna says.

Besides Markham, Fire Station 18 also serves the Marshall Park, Far Southwest, West Portland Park, Multnomah, Ash Creek, Crestwood and Maplewood neighborhoods. During the three-hour training sessions, the station shuts down its phone line and all calls are forwarded to adjoining fire stations.

Fire Station 18 Capt. Gerard Pahissa prioritized setting up direct communication with NET teams when he became captain and has been working with neighborhood NET teams within the station's jurisdiction.

"I want them to be well-prepared for emergency because they're going to be our primary resource during a natural disaster," Pahissa says.

Pahissa says that if a major disaster such as an earthquake did strike, his crew would have their hands full covering their wide swath of territory. In those cases, he says NET teams will be valuable.

"In a major emergency, there's going to be one engine company trying to cover 10,000 residents," Pahissa says. "We're going to be stretched very thin and have a difficult time, which is one of the most important components of having NET. They're going to be critical in that area."

Contact Connection reporter Corey Buchanan at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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