Crowds line Ocean Avenue during last year's L.A. Marathon. (File photo)
Crowds line Ocean Avenue during last year’s L.A. Marathon. (File photo)

DOWNTOWN — Come the morning of March 17, tens of thousands of people will descend on Santa Monica. Some will have crossed the finish line of the L.A. Marathon, a grueling 26.2 mile ordeal, while others will be there to support those workout warriors.

For the first time, the Santa Monica CERT volunteers in their green vests will also be added to the mix.

CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team, is a program which gives civilian volunteers the basic skills they need to help highly-trained emergency responders in the event of a major catastrophe. Over the course of three weekends, they learn how to search damaged buildings, administer basic first aid and even some rescue techniques.

While only the most ardent couch potato could classify the L.A. Marathon as a “disaster,” any mass grouping of people has the potential to become a big problem for a small number of emergency responders.

Paul Weinberg, Santa Monica’s emergency services coordinator, remembers well marathon day in 2011 when the rains came, leaving thousands of runners hypothermic. Emergency responders had their hands full getting people warming blankets and monitoring their condition as other members of the community — particularly luxury hotels immediately adjacent to the race course — stepped up to care for stricken runners.

“The partnership with the hotels is something that I talk about at every training,” Weinberg said, noting it’s a rare place where emergency personnel can go to exclusive, expensive hotels and co-opt their ballrooms and still be offered coffee.

Even with that generosity, things could have gone smoother. Medical personnel like firefighters and paramedics were caught up doing much-needed, but basic, tasks when they could have been out on the front lines caring for worse-off individuals who needed their skills more.

That’s where CERT comes in, Weinberg said.

The 25 CERT members who will be on hand that Sunday will be playing one of three roles. The first will be “hotwalkers,” the first line of evaluators who meet runners at the finish line and assess their condition. Are they hypothermic? Do they just need water, or is that dizzy spell something more serious?

The second task will be bus monitor. No, really.

Buses line up on race day with either their heaters or air conditioners on to care for those the hotwalkers deem in need of a closer eye.

In previous years, these buses would be staffed by firefighters or paramedics, Weinberg said.

“We had people on buses, but the police and fire didn’t have enough hands,” he said. “If you have a trained CERT person, it’s better to have that person as a monitor rather than a paramedic. They’re a force multiplier, but if you have a fire person on the bus, that’s one less trained fire person in the field.”

Finally, CERT members will be helping out with wheelchairs and gurneys at the emergency center on Ocean Avenue, normally the Senior Center.

Although the focus Sunday won’t be on the 25 CERT members in their green vests, it is something of a coming out party for the program, the first event for which they have been called on to mobilize.

Beyond fires, earthquakes and other major disasters, it’s what City Manager Rod Gould had in mind when he created the Office of Emergency Management and established the CERT program in Santa Monica.

The idea comes from the Japanese model of emergency preparedness, Gould said. The small country is rocked by earthquakes several times a day, in some cases, and most recently had to contend with the earthquake and tsunami that took out its nuclear power plant.

“Their idea is that they’ll never have enough public servants around to do everything necessary, so they have to step up and help themselves,” Gould said.

So far, three classes have gone through the CERT training program.

Renato Akerman was a member of the second class, and will be there to help on race day. He’s excited for the opportunity, and sees it as a way to get the word out on the CERT program in Santa Monica.

“It’s going to be our first assignment, the first time we’re seen as useful,” Akerman said. “It’s not just about training and drilling, it’ll be live action.”

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