Upper West Side CERT

Help me, my husband and son are missing!

By Linda Lopez

It was 6:50 a.m. on a Saturday morning and there we were, CERT volunteers, piling onto shuttle buses at OEM headquarters in Brooklyn or car-pooling from all over the city to participate in part two of NYC Resilience, a full-scale emergency response exercise that had begun the week before with a staged mass-casualty incident.

CERT actors rehearsing

A group of CERT actors rehearse their roles as family members of missing disaster victims.

In part one, simultaneous bomb explosions had rocked a busy intersection in Long Island City and a stretch of the Queens Midtown Tunnel. The streets were pandemonium. With CERT volunteers portraying dead and injured pedestrians, first responders — NYPD, FDNY, EMT, and Red Cross — converged on the two sites, and worked together to secure them and then triage and transport the victims.

Today’s exercise would be part two, the aftermath. The scene would be an FAC (Family Assistance Center), with some CERT volunteers manning the center and assisting the participating relief agencies, and others assuming the roles of distraught family members looking for news of loved ones feared killed or injured in the blasts.

What do you say to a women who is pleading with you, “Help me, my husband and son are missing!” How do you deal with several hundred frightened relatives, all clamoring for news of a missing loved one? How do you collect and process information about the missing persons, provide comfort to the families, deal with the press, and disseminate news in a way that won’t cause mass panic?

You can’t know until you actually do it. What looks good on paper sometimes fails in the field, which is why the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is committed to ongoing disaster training, both for the city’s first responders and for its network of trained volunteers.

My group of  actors were issued scripts and props — photos of our missing relatives, a detailed personal history for each, a comb or toothbrush that might yield their DNA for identification, and other personal artifacts — and directed by OEM to make it real. Most people involved in emergency management accept that it is not a matter of if such a tragedy will occur but when, so no one had to look far for motivation. In a post-9/11 world, such things are not difficult to imagine.

As directed, the actors put the responders through their paces. It was a long, sometimes emotional day, as both sides explored the pain and frustration of the characters they were playing. The advocate assigned to my “family” was a soft-spoken young man, Hun Jue Luu, a Red Cross staff psychologist. One can only hope that, in such a situation, there will be more like him. The detectives who interviewed us handled  our angry demands for answers with patience and compassion. Everyone worked on staying focused and maintaining calm.

By the end of the day, a lot of learning had taken place. Surveys arrived a few days later and everyone had a chance to debrief. Once our feedback is processed, the next steps will be to fix the mistakes and do it all again… and again… until NYC Resilience runs like a well oiled machine. That’s what it means to be prepared.

For more information:

  • NYC Resilience press release
  • NYC CERT Training
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