Capt. Judah Mitchell helps a student learn the ropes of using a fire extinguisher on Saturday during training for the Community Emergency Response Team. (Photo by Ashley Archibald)

CITY YARDS — I pulled the pin on the fire extinguisher and approached the flaming soup of diesel and gasoline as I’d been instructed, moving forward steadily and aggressively while sweeping the nozzle spewing a flame retardant powder left and right at the base of the fire.

It was just as Santa Monica Fire Department Training Captain Judah Mitchell had described it to myself and 24 other classmates during the classroom portion of the Community Emergency Response Team training, a three-week program to teach civilians the basics of emergency response so that they can assist police and firefighters in the event of a major disaster when Santa Monica’s frontliners will find themselves overwhelmed.

Our class and every other group that takes the course will become force-multipliers, people who can get the path cleared and people evacuated so the professionals can do the heavy lifting by first protecting themselves and then doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people after a disaster.

“You’re such an integral piece of the puzzle,” Lt. Ken Semko told the assembled class, surprisingly energetic at 8:30 a.m. for someone who described themselves as “not a morning person.”

Semko, whose spent over 20 years with the Santa Monica Police Department, is the manager of the Office of Emergency Management, a section of city government created by City Manager Rod Gould a year ago to ensure that the Santa Monica community could handle whatever nature threw its way.

In the past, the same duties were carried out by members of the fire and police departments, but never as the main focus. Semko and his team of police, firefighters and civilians live and breathe it. They wake up in the wee hours of the morning, seized with concerns about the response and new ideas of how to manage them.

Government projections of what a powerful earthquake would do to the Los Angeles region would leave anyone a lighter sleeper.

1,800 people dead. 53,000 injured. $213 billion in damages. Power and water out for weeks, maybe, and a limited number of emergency responders able to clean up the mess.

“It will happen,” Semko said. “There will be a major disaster, either tonight, 15 years or 30 years from now.”

That’s where the CERT teams come in. The first aim is to do no harm — do not become part of the problem, another person that needs saving. The second is to step in and help out.

CERT has its roots in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Fire Department traveled to Japan to discover why the island nation so beset by earthquakes and other natural disasters could bounce back, Semko told the class. They found that not only did the government have a plan, its citizens played a critical role in preparing themselves and knowing how to help others.

The LAFD created CERT in 1985, and it became a national program with certification from the Federal Emergency Management Administration — better known as FEMA — in 1994. While Santa Monica had a version called Disaster Assistance Response Training (DART), the new program is more in-depth than its predecessor.

“CERT is DART on speed,” Semko said.

 

Hands-on

 

It certainly felt speedy. After a quick introduction — Fire Extinguisher 101 — we were outside in the fire department training yard with jackets, gloves,  helmets and our fire-fighting weapon.

I discovered in that first foray that there are things they don’t tell you, probably because they themselves are so used to it.

Like the taste of the dry powder in your mouth, or the way it seems near impossible to know for yourself if the fire is actually out because of the way the chemicals explode out of the canister and into the air, obscuring vision.

The exercise was akin to fighting a grease fire because the flames burned atop liquid, Mitchell and Senior Fire Inspector Brad Lomas told us. Part of the trick is to avoid spreading the fire by attacking it at a bad angle, pushing the burning fuel out of its container.

The last time I’d seen a grease fire put out, it had a little more style, if not as much efficiency. My mother had been cooking breakfast around the winter holidays when some errant bacon grease decided to go out in blazing glory. She grabbed the ever-present fire extinguisher, pulled the pin, took aim … and nothing came out.

It had been a few years since we’d even thought about it, I think, and it must have expired long before. That’s exactly what you don’t want to happen.

Some fluke of nature had left a thin layer of snow in northern Texas that year, so dad grabbed the flaming pan and dumped it in the front yard to smother the blaze.

That was the last time I’d had a chance to see “fire fighting” in the home, and at 25, I’d never used an extinguisher myself. Nor, I learned, had many of the other people in my class.

By the end of the day, we’d put out fires, and learned basic techniques to extricate injured people from under obstacles using a process called cribbing that looks like Jenga in reverse and carry them to safety.

The class came to the training with different levels of experience, a mish-mash of professions, motivations and even first languages — Portuguese, Swiss, Chinese, French and more. Nurses sat down next to apartment managers, computer guys chatted with construction guys and in the back, a gentleman with more emergency management degrees than some instructors kept an eye out and helpful tips at the ready.

John Morrison, a registered nurse by training, would likely already be helping out in the event of a major emergency. Still, the CERT class gave a new perspective and dimension to the skills he already had. By the time he sees a patient, they’ve already been stabilized, he said.

“It’s important to know what people are going through,” Morrison said. “I wanted to learn about the process before they get to the hospital.”

This is only the second round of CERT training offered by the Office of Emergency Management. The first catered mostly to community officials who could speak to the class to boost interest. It turned out to be unnecessary.

Despite the application process which requires a Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation background check and the intimidating step of getting fingerprints taken — even the innocent wondered if their prints would by some fluke match a set of mystery prints from a crime scene — there are 200 people in the waiting list for the next class.

It’s a testament to the community, which always finds a way to get involved and stay involved in Santa Monica life, be it through politics or the simple desire to be a force for good in their neighborhood, said Paul Weinberg, Santa Monica’s emergency services coordinator.

“This is Santa Monica CERT,” he said. “It’s unlike any other. They will be making a difference here.”

 

ashley@smdp.com