Vashon's Community Emergency Response Team training offers valuable skills

Two years ago, Islander Jenna Riggs was relaxing in her dad’s garden in rural Oregon when she watched a nightmare unfold.

Her father had taken her two young daughters for a ride in an off-road utility vehicle when, some 40 feet away, the open-sided vehicle turned over — throwing the girls and her dad onto a hillside.

“All I heard was screaming,” Riggs recalled.

It was the kind of situation where many people might panic. But because of a class on emergency preparedness that she had recently completed, Riggs said, she not only knew what to do, she also had the gear she needed.

Her husband and stepmother ran to help the girls and their grandfather, while Riggs ran inside to call 911. When she came out, she grabbed her emergency backpack from her car and ran to help while the EMTs made the long trek from the nearest town.

She checked the girls from head to toe, looking for broken bones and bleeding and evaluating for shock. The girls were screaming — and thus clearly breathing — so Riggs moved on to evaluate her dad, who was quiet and bleeding heavily from his nose. She evaluated him from head to toe as well, talking to him, keeping him calm and conscious and trying to reassure him about the girls.

When the medics arrived, they repeated the steps Riggs had taken and placed all three people on backboards to transport them to the hospital.

“Once everyone was in the ambulances, I totally fell apart,” Riggs said.

She credits her focus and know-how that day to training in Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) class.

“The training gave me a sense the girls were going to be OK,” she said. “It gave me a purpose until help got there. I am really thankful to the training for that.”

The CERT training that Riggs and nearly 200 other Islanders have taken is being offered again later this month. It is 40 hours meant to prepare people to respond calmly and competently in the face of disaster: earthquake, fire, windstorm and the like. But CERT instructors Michael and Catherine Cochrane say the training is more likely to be used for events such as this one, when a simple spring morning goes wrong.

The course — a string of Friday evenings, followed by a daylong Saturday disaster drill that calls upon all the skills learned — covers a lot of ground. Students learn about important personal disaster preparation they can apply to their own lives, including simple steps, such as making sure their bookcases are attached to the walls and securing ample food and water to weather a disaster for three weeks.

They learn about fire prevention and response and practice putting out a fire with a fire extinguisher with the help of fire district personnel.

They receive a crash course in disaster medicine, with the focus on extracting injured people from dangerous situations and assessing them for breathing, bleeding, shock and severe injuries and how to communicate those injuries appropriately in a disaster.

And they learn searching skills, including how to assess if a structure is safe to enter, how to conduct a search, and how to extract people safely. CERT students practice these skills in a fire-training facility — an old shipping container, with jumbled furnishings meant to resemble a dark house in the wake of disaster. At the end of the course, students combine all their knowledge and work in teams and respond to a variety of disaster scenarios.

With Haiti in everyone’s minds — and now Chile — disaster fatigue can set in and people can tune out.

“After a while, you just don’t want to think about it,” said Michael Cochrane, who teaches the CERT course with Catherine. “But on a personal level, it’s quite simple. It’s all about knowledge and having the right stuff.”

Students who take the CERT class are eligible for follow-up training, may join the Vashon emergency response team and go so far as to become King County Registered Emergency Workers.

But that route is not right for everyone, the Cochranes know, and want people to take the class even if they do not want to participate further in Island disaster preparedness. They can take it simply to prepare themselves and their families.

The community will benefit from as many people as possible taking the course and being part of the solution, Michael said, as their skills and knowledge will have ripple effects.

“If you can take care of yourself, the likelihood is you will be around to help others,” he said.

The next CERT course will be from 6 to 10 p.m. Fridays, March 19 to May 7, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 1, at the Penny Farcy Training Center on Bank Road. To register or for more information, contact the Cochranes at 463-4558 or The course is free.

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