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CERT Simulation

By Cindy West

Gadsden Times Staff Writer

GUNTERSVILLE - There I was, bruised and bleeding. I had heard the tornado warning over the radio, but I was sure I could beat the bad weather home. But as I was passing the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, a gust of wind slapped me out of the traffic lane and into the curb.

My air bag deployed, but that didn't keep the left side of my face and my arm from getting bruised and scraped on the driver's side door. Groggy from the impact, I pushed the air bag aside and surveyed the destruction.

It only lasted a second, but that tornado had tossed people around like rag dolls - people who, only seconds before, had been in and out of the courthouse buying car tags and paying traffic tickets. I could see what looked like a teenage girl sprawled on a concrete picnic table. From the angle she landed, her back must be broken. Two other girls were nearby, one under a shrub and one with her legs tangled in the wrought-iron fence of the war memorial. After my head cleared I could see a group of people walking toward us, and I hoped they were coming to help.

Thankfully, the scrapes and bruises on my face and arm were nothing more than makeup artfully applied by a theater group volunteer, and the girl with the broken back was only a very limber teenager. We were among about 30 or so volunteers playing victims in a mock disaster drill staged Tuesday by Community Emergency Response Teams.

The purpose of the drill was to allow CERT members to put into practice the skills they have studied in a training course lasting more than two months. Marshall County Emergency Management Agency planner Anita McBurnett was pleased with the result.

"The drill surpassed the level of training CERT members received over their nine-week training course," McBurnett said. "These individuals took their training and life experience and put it into action."

This is how CERT works: emergency responders, such as firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and police officers, train members of the community in basic emergency response skills. If a disaster occurs and the professionals are overwhelmed or delayed, CERT members can step in with basic skills and organization to help rescue efforts. More than 150 Marshall County residents have completed CERT training.

The mock disaster drill started with a briefing for CERT members about the hypothetical situation they would face: an outbreak of tornadoes, with a strong one passing near the courthouse at 2:18 p.m. Two businesses were reported destroyed, and power lines were down on the Warrenton causeway, which was also partially blocked by a wrecked tractor-trailer rig. Power outages were widespread.

Part of Guntersville Elementary School was crushed by falling trees. A bus load of Boy Scouts on their way back from camp had rolled over beside the courthouse. Deputies were working to secure inmates at the jail and to secure courthouse entrance and exit points. Maintenance workers were trapped by falling concrete in a warehouse. Fires erupted as natural gas lines ruptured. As the tornado moved across Guntersville Lake, an empty barge was blown into the docks at Signal Point Marina. Boats were adrift, some sunk, and there were reports of bodies in the water. The only road to the marina was blocked by downed trees and power lines, so the only access would be by water.

The drill assumed there would not be enough ambulances available to handle all the wounded. Once released from the briefing, the teams fanned out from the courthouse. On the first pass it assessed the victims, tagging them for immediate transport, delayed transport or deceased, according to their injuries. Because my wounds were minor, rescuers asked me if I would be willing to sit with some of the younger girls and reassure them until they could be moved to a hospital.

I did so, moving over to talk to a couple of Boaz High School sophomores whom I had met earlier while we were being "wounded" in makeup. Although one appeared to be unconscious, I suggested that she move from under the shrubs beside the courthouse, thus escaping the poison oak patch in which she had "fallen." Her next place to fall was, regrettably, in an ant bed, so she suddenly recovered enough from her injuries to walk to a better location.

Living in a tornado-prone area for most of my life has given me a deep well of respect for people who put themselves in danger to save others, particularly those who do it without the incentive of pay and benefits.

I'm glad I got the opportunity to see how CERT works in a mock disaster, because I'll have more confidence about Marshall County's response when a real disaster occurs.