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Military Department employees take part in CERT

Employees and Guardsmen from the Washington Military Department take part in a Search and Rescue exercise at the West Pierce Fire and Rescue Training Center in Lakewood, Wash. on Sept. 1. 


Barbara Zimmerman pulled the pin from the fire extinguisher, squeezed it off once to test it out and then swept the blast of cool chemicals across a gasoline fire as the smoke billowed to the sky.

Zimmerman, who works for the state E911 Coordinator’s Office, was one of a couple dozen Washington Military Department employees to undergo Community Emergency Response Team training recently. The fire training portion, conducted by West Pierce Fire and Rescue in Lakewood, was just one aspect of the multi-day course, which also focused on disaster psychology, medical operations, disaster preparedness and light search and rescue operations.

“It came pretty easy,” Zimmerman said. “I can be really calm in a situation. It’s great to know basic first aid and how to keep everything calm until the real help arrives.”

Employees from all aspects of the agency came together — both on the civilian side and those in the National Guard — in order to be better trained on Camp Murray for light search and rescue and medical skills in case a disaster were to strike. The training came just weeks after nearly the entire agency mobilized for Cascadia Rising, an exercise focusing on what a big 9.0 earthquake and tsunami could do to the region.

Employees and Guardsmen from the Washington Military Department take part in a Search and Rescue exercise at the West Pierce Fire and Rescue Training Center in Lakewood, Wash. on Sept. 1. 


Part of the training happened on Camp Murray with the rest occurring at a fire station in Lakewood. The course ended with a four-hour disaster drill focusing on the aftermath of a simulated 7.2 earthquake.

Community members used makeup and prosthetics to fake injuries and make the experience realistic as teams helped rescue simulated victims from a four-story building and explored a basement to look for survivors. The goal for these community first responders is to do the most good for the most people.

Firefighter Brian Bouton, who led the search and rescue aspect of the training, said that Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) will be a critical element of the first response following a big disaster like an earthquake. Statistics from the Los Angeles Fire Department, which created the CERT training, showed that after a major disaster about 50 percent of the impacted area have residents who are injured, but not trapped, 30 percent who need some light rescue, 15 percent who need medium rescue capability and just 5 percent who require heavy rescue capability, like from a building collapse.

“We need CERT to be able to do our jobs effectively,” Bouton said, noting that a properly trained team can help light rescue efforts while the first responders handle the dire situations.

“This whole class is outside-the-box thinking,” he added, showing that a car jack can be used to help lift a block of wood off of someone or a cribbing box can be constructed out of fence posts to help lift a car off of someone.

Employees and Guardsmen from the Washington Military Department take part in a Search and Rescue exercise at the West Pierce Fire and Rescue Training Center in Lakewood, Wash. on Sept. 1. 


Senior Master Sgt. Joel Wheeler, of the Air National Guard, helped organize the course. He hopes that more employees take the training, noting that a Community Emergency Response Team is possible to do on Camp Murray and also take back to employees’ homes. The couple dozen employees who took the classes live mainly in Pierce, Thurston and King counties.

“If disaster strikes when we are at our homes, our neighbors will look to us for assurance,” Wheeler said. “This training is a solid first step in confidently giving that to them in times of great need… They will be better able to possibly take charge in a situation where their neighbors may be looking to them as Guardsmen / State EOC personnel for confidence in a time of crisis.”

Wheeler said the agency will also utilize the lessons learned through this CERT training experience to further develop a cohesive response capability between the three main agencies represented on Camp Murray — the state, Army and Air sides.

Zimmerman said her husband is in the military and she knows his focus will be on the job during an emergency.

“Knowing I still have a support system to rally with and help take care of my kids is really important and it’s really important to give back,” she said. “I thought it was a wonderful experience. I really appreciated the overall structure. I think when there’s a disaster everyone wants to help and having the ability to have something already pre-constructed as an organizational structure will keep pandemonium to a minimum.”

Among tidbits taught:

  • Purell can be used to clean water
  • Include a can opener in your emergency kit, even if you don’t have cans (in case you get canned food later)
  • Keep a whistle in your emergency kit in case you get trapped and your voice gets hoarse
  • Include things that taste good to you in your emergency kit because, at some point, MREs are going to taste pretty awful
  • Learn how to turn off your propane and natural gas — and make sure you have a non-static tool to do it (or wrap your existing tool in electrical tape)
  • Take care of yourself and your family first, then your neighbors

Community Emergency Response Teams are being organized all over the state. Get involved and learn more here:

The Camp Murray team became the 31st class to graduate from West Pierce Fire and Rescue. Learn more about their program here