More emergency response volunteers needed

A few weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the need to remain vigilant about the chance that 2017 could see the next Hurricane Iniki. Although Kauai residents have acknowledged for decades that we’re overdue for such a catastrophe, it has yet to happen.

Kauai has three major volunteer organizations whose members are trained in disaster response. Islandwide, on paper, about 475 people are signed up as volunteers available in an emergency. The organizations are the Kauai Fire Department’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), the American Red Cross disaster services unit for Kauai and the Kauai Medical Reserve Corps.

On paper, that may seem impressive, but appearances are deceiving and it would be misguided for anyone who lives here to take much comfort in those numbers. There is something very positive you can do about this: Get involved.

Let’s start with CERT, the local version of similar programs supported by the federal government all across the United States. (Disclosure: I am the Kilauea team leader for CERT.) All told, Kauai CERT has about 230 qualified members, though only about 65 participate in training and other activities regularly.

CERT includes a number of licensed amateur radio operators, who in turn are members of the Kauai Amateur Radio Club, which would coordinate electronic communications from locations all over the island to the County Emergency Operations Center in Lihue. CERT assessment teams would quantify damage and casualties, providing the basic information about what parts of the county have been worst hit and which have the most injuries or fatalities.

Such a response has to be mounted immediately, because decisions must be made quickly on what disaster response resources are needed on Kauai and, most important, where they are deployed.

Like the other two organizations, many of CERT’s members also participate in the Red Cross or the Medical Reserve Corps. MRC is a group run by the state Department of Health and mainly consists of people with medical backgrounds. How many of these volunteers wear more than one organizational hat isn’t known, although it could be calculated if anyone was available to do that.

The other night, Kilauea CERT held a meeting to review a phone survey of all members in the community. The results were troubling. Between disconnected and nonworking phone numbers, people who never responded to voicemail messages asking them to make CERT aware of their availability in a disaster, and the number of people on the roster but who had still not undergone the basic training, it became uncomfortably clear that in the event of an Iniki-like disaster, Kilauea CERT would be fortunate to field a team of six to eight qualified volunteers.

The fire department and the Kauai Emergency Management Agency sponsor an annual full day refresher course islandwide in all of the skills necessary for CERT: damage assessment, first aid, light search and rescue, CPR and radio communications. This year’s refresher drew only 50 people from the entire island. That’s important because many of the skills necessary for CERT to be effective (this is also true of the Red Cross and MRC) are highly perishable and must be practiced regularly to maintain enough proficiency to be an effective emergency responder.

The Red Cross has about 120 people on its Kauai roster, but only about 40 of them are classified as likely to be able to respond to a disaster. When the Red Cross last mobilized its volunteers to prepare to open shelters for a possible hurricane (which never got here), only 28 people said they were ready to go after the hurricane hit.

Padraic Gallagher, the Red Cross director for Kauai, told me that a third of those available volunteers also participate in CERT or MRC.

MRC has about 125 people on its Kauai roster, of whom only about 20 to 25 respond as ready to go when an emergency activation notice is sent out. Like the Red Cross, MRC believes that 25 to 30 percent of its volunteers wear more than one hat.

If you put all of this together, and subtract out the duplication in memberships, it’s hard to miss a challenging reality: Though these three emergency response volunteer agencies appear robust on paper, the actual number of people they could count on to respond to an actual emergency is far fewer than 100.

If you want to do something about this, you can. You can join one (or more) of these three programs. You can make a huge difference.

• For CERT, contact the Kauai Fire Department at www.kauai.gov/CERT. There is a roster at that page of all the team leaders, with names and local phone numbers. Call the one for your community if you’re willing to help. CERT schedules training classes at regular intervals all over the island.

• For the Red Cross, go to www.redcross.org/hawaii, or call 808-245-4919. Red Cross has numerous regular training opportunities, as well.

• For the Medical Reserve Corps, go to http://health.hawaii.gov/docd/about-us/programs/medical-reserve-corps-mrc/

All three organizations have required training programs and require background checks or one kind or another.

If you can help, don’t wait. Call today. The need is great and these three organizations may make the difference between disaster hardship and total catastrophe for Kauai.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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