A tornado roars through your city overnight. Cars are overturned, houses have lost their roofs, and your neighbors can’t find family members. What can you do to help? If you are a Citizen Corps member, not only will you have skills to immediately help your community alongside firefighters, police officers, and paramedics, but you will also have the ability to educate individuals on preparing for the worst before it ever happens.
Formed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Citizens Corps is a national project that focuses on harnessing the power of every individual through education, training, and volunteer service to make communities safer, stronger, and better prepared to respond to threats ranging from natural disasters to terrorism to public health issues. Citizens Corps’ goals are to:
- prepare everyday citizens for the risks faced in their local community
- work with volunteer groups to provide support to first responders (firefighters, police, paramedics) to make their job easier
- connect diverse community leaders with emergency managers to ensure our entire community has a role in disaster planning and response
Citizen Corps is broken down into five specific programs: Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), Neighborhood Watch, Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS), Fire Corps, and Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). Each of these programs is part of the Citizens Corps family, even though they each focus on different responsibilities.
While Citizens Corps is a national initiative, the Heart of Texas Regional Citizen Corps (which includes Bosque, Falls, Freestone, Hill, Limestone, and McLennan County) is overseen on a regional level. This means there are Citizens Corps opportunities in your county, consisting of volunteers knowledgeable about their specific city, administered by members of the local community.
Over the years, community involvement and disaster preparedness within the Heart of Texas Council of Governments (HOTCOG) region has experienced a substantial increase. In fact, as more people have gotten involved, our region has been recognized on a national level. In September 2013, the Heart of Texas Regional Citizen Corps Council was awarded the FEMA Individual and Community Preparedness Award for Outstanding Community Initiative. In addition, Boyce Wilson was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change for Community Preparedness and Resilience during the same month. These awards recognize the effectiveness of the programs implemented throughout the HOTCOG region and the importance of whole-community preparedness in the rural communities.
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Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT)
Following a major disaster, it is likely that local firefighters, police officers, and paramedics will be overwhelmed. As a result, immediate emergency assistance may not be available. This is where you can step in and help your neighbors and community by becoming a CERT member. CERTs are comprised of local volunteers that desire to improve their community by supporting response operations during a disaster or emergency. Volunteers receive free training and equipment that are provided through the Homeland Security Grant Program and local supporters.
Just as important as helping during an actual emergency, CERT members work closely with local emergency management and response officials to improve community preparedness and resilience. While disasters may not occur everyday, there is an ongoing need to educate the public about hazards within the community, emergencies planning, and the importance of disaster response training. CERT members participate in activities throughout the year. When disaster does strike, CERT members spring into action to provide necessary medical, search and rescue, and logistical support under the direction and supervision of emergency responders.
Neighborhood Watch provides you the opportunity to make your community safer and improve the quality of life in your neighborhood. Members learn how to identify and report suspicious activity in their neighborhood, with a major emphasis on observation and awareness as a means of preventing crime. Neighborhood Watch groups typically use strategies that range from simply promoting social interaction and “watching out for each other” to active patrols by groups of citizens (Yin, et al., 1976).
Most neighborhood crime prevention groups are organized around a block or a neighborhood and are started with assistance from a law enforcement agency. One way to recognize if a Neighborhood Watch program is active in your neighborhood is to look for street signs with the program’s logo (whose purpose is to potentially deter any would-be criminals).
Neighborhood Watch programs are centered around the belief that collective action by residents is one of the most effective strategies to prevent crime. Involving community members in watch programs decreases opportunities for criminals to commit crime rather than attempting to change their behavior or motivation.
Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS)
The VIPS Program provides support and resources for agencies interested in developing or enhancing a volunteer program and for citizens who wish to volunteer their time and skills with a community law enforcement agency. The program’s ultimate goal is to enhance the capacity of state and local law enforcement to utilize volunteers.
Since its start in 2004, Fire Corps has helped fire and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) departments in 49 states by engaging community volunteers to assist in a variety of non-emergency roles. These community volunteers can make a real difference for their local department, both by expanding the services a department can offer and by enabling first responders to focus more on training and response activities.
Medical Reserve Corps (MRC)
The mission of the MRC is to engage volunteers to strengthen public health, emergency response and community resiliency. MRC units are community-based and function as a way to locally organize and utilize volunteers who want to donate their time and expertise to prepare for and respond to emergencies and promote healthy living throughout the year. MRC volunteers supplement existing emergency and public health resources.
MRC volunteers include medical and public health professionals such as physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians, and epidemiologists. Many community members—interpreters, chaplains, office workers, legal advisers, and others—can fill key support positions. MRC volunteers can choose to support communities in need nationwide. When the southeast was battered by hurricanes in 2004, MRC volunteers in the affected areas and beyond helped communities by filling in at local hospitals, assisting their neighbors at local shelters, and providing first aid to those injured by the storms. During this 2-month period, more than 30 MRC units worked as part of the relief efforts, including those whose volunteers were called in from across the country to assist the American Red Cross (ARC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
During the 2005 Hurricane Season, MRC members provided support for ARC health services, mental health and shelter operations. MRC members also supported the HHS response and recovery efforts by staffing special needs shelters, Community Health Centers and health clinics, and assisting health assessment teams in the Gulf Coast region. More than 1,500 MRC members were willing to deploy outside their local jurisdiction on optional missions to the disaster-affected areas with their state agencies, the ARC, and HHS. Of these, almost 200 volunteers from 25 MRC units were activated by HHS, and more than 400 volunteers from more than 80 local MRC units were activated to support ARC disaster operations in Gulf Coast areas.