CERT Team Steps Up During Massive Blaze
By Brian Magoolaghan
When a devastating, six-alarm fire broke out at an apartment building in Far Rockaway on February 3, it brought teams of first responders - Police, Fire, EMS - to the scene, but it also drew a new kind of city response group: the Civilian Emergency Response Team.
CERTs - neighborhood-based volunteers who are trained by the Office of Emergency Management - were on the scene almost immediately, according to Pesach Osina, the team leader for the Far Rockaway/Bayswater area. The team, about 17 people in all, are residents, so they know the area better than most. They've also undergone training in disaster preparedness and basic response skills. They're probably not going the ones who save you in an emergency, but they're extra hands for the people who will.
"We were one of the first people there," Osina told The Wave during a recent interview. Among the fist things they did was assist the FDNY with leading displaced residents away from the building, helping them find temporary shelter in the homes of neighbors.
The fire started after 11 p.m. on a night when temperatures were near freezing and the winds were gusting to 20 mph. Residents, who had to flee for safety, were underdressed. Some wore blankets as shoulder wraps, Osina said.
CERT members were in contact with OEM, which is based in Brooklyn, and since the agency only responds to major incidents, team members acted as some of its first eyes and ears on the scene. OEM officials would respond to Far Rockaway at about 1:30 a.m. Sunday and brought a handful of MTA buses for use as temporary shelters. (Using a nearby school was delayed because LIPA had to cut the electric in the area due to the fire.)
CERT members were then able to lead displaced residents to the buses and find out if there were any special-needs cases, such as people who needed medication or baby formula. "We know where to turn for each item," Osina explained.
Team members also helped the Red Cross distribute drinks, snacks and blankets. While the CERT teams were doing their thing hundreds emergency response workers were saving people, pets and property. Their record speaks for itself: The building may be gutted, but there were no serious injuries reported.
There was one hiccup: Team members don't have their CERT team identification or shirts yet, which complicates their interaction with the NYPD and FDNY, Osina said. But OEM officials were impressed with the team's performance, according to Jarrod Berstein, a spokesperson.
"Overall, they were a textbook case of how we envisioned the program would operate," Bernstein said. "They were absolutely amazing at that fire." He said the gear the team was lacking was due to oversight and that he would try to remedy it soon.
Osina said anyone interested in joining the Far Rockaway/Bayswater CERT team can contact him at (718) 868-2720. More information is available at www.nyc.gov/OEM or by calling 311.