Twenty Lawrence Township residents stand ready to assist their closest neighbors and all town residents when an emergency suddenly makes life challenging. Members of the Lawrenceville Community Emergency Response Team are trained in basic disaster response skills and they can often provide a lifeline for their neighbors in the moments before town, county, and state emergency response agencies arrive. Once first responders are on the scene, the team continues to help, cooperating with and assisting officials wherever needed.
Lawrenceville’s CERT, headed by team leader Arlene Bonville with assistance from Lawrence Township Director of Fire and Emergency Services Jack Oakley, was established in 2005 during a push by local, state, and federal officials to ensure there was a resource for immediate response to emergencies. Modeled on a concept developed in Los Angeles following a 1987 earthquake in which first responders could not reach all affected areas, a CERT can provide helping hands and a calming influence in those first terrifying moments after a disaster occurs.
CERT volunteer Ed Frankel noted the team trains to be innovative and respond with “basic stuff to do what you can do with what you have at the site. The idea is to know what to do in an emergency and to understand your own limitations and how to support first responders.” Frankel, a retired Department of Environmental Protection employee, has lived in Lawrence for 34.5 years. He is married with two grown children who live out of Lawrence.
CERT is part of the larger Citizen Corps, administered by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security that includes four other largely volunteer options for communities to augment their first responders. Citizen Corps’ mission is to harness the power of individuals through education, training, and volunteer service to help make communities safer and better prepared to respond to disasters of all kinds.
“Everything starts local,” said Sergeant First Class T. J. Wagner of the New Jersey State Police Emergency Response Bureau. “The more prepared a community is, the less of a burden there is on the County and State. CERT members can help in a lot of ways such as light search and rescue, field searches, technical or administrative support during an event. That way, the first responders can concentrate on their primary mission.”
Bonville, 64, knows exactly when the Lawrenceville team faced its biggest challenge: Hurricane Sandy.
“That was a big one,” she said. “Before Sandy hit, we knew what was going on and Jack [Oakley] and I were here with other officials and we realized at that time that we were going to be hit. We started a plan of who were going to need and how many people we would need.”
The team worked with town and county officials to set up a comfort center at Lawrence High School, as well as at the Lawrence Senior Center. Those centers were manned by CERT volunteers, and the team also transported people to hotels in New Brunswick.
“That was our biggest event and we were out there doing whatever needed to be done,” Bonville said.
Training is an important aspect of being a CERT member. New Jersey mandates 20 hours of training, although the Lawrenceville CERT members have far exceeded that basic requirement. Oakley said the town has conducted training in the past, but now cooperates with the Mercer County Office of Emergency Management for training. Bringing together people from several towns, the county provides training at the Dempster Fire Training Center on Lawrence Station Road. The space allows for practical exercises, Oakley said—Frankel added the team recently had a search and rescue training where members practiced extracting a person from a collapsed building.
Each team member has a CERT bag and protective equipment including hard hats, several types of gloves, inclement weather gear, reflective vests and goggles. A 4-in-1 tool allows team members to shut off gas or water connections, pry open doors and dig through debris. The bag also includes basic first aid materials such as gauze, tape, latex gloves and sanitizers.
‘If we need to help in a disaster with triage, helping people, even with something as simple as handing out water, we do that.’
The team has participated with first responders in several simulated disaster training exercises. They have also occasionally acted as victims of a disaster to help emergency personnel practice what they need to do. Whether at the local airport, train station or the Quaker Bridge Mall, the simulations give them an insight into real-world situations. Their trainings have included an active shooter situation at the mall, a plane crash and a hostage situation at the airport and a disaster at the Trenton Train Station.
“I think these trainings have the most impact because they could be real,” Bonville said. Bonville retired last year after 30 years with the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts. She’s lived in Lawrence with her husband since 1995.
“We are not first responders,” said Bruce McGraw, a doctor and member of the Lawrenceville team, as well as the international Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program. McGraw and his wife, Jean, have two sons, David and Andrew, who both graduated from Lawrence High School. He is a life member of the Lawrence Township Emergency First Aid Squad, among other organizations.
Team members are trained in CPR and basic lifesaving skills and can augment first responders in the first confusing, often terrifying moments of an emergency.
“The main function of CERT is to be an extra resource for the first responders,” Bonville said. “If we need to help in a disaster with triage, helping people, even with something as simple as handing out water, we do that.”
Since emergencies do not happen every day, the team augments its training with volunteer activities and support for the township.
“A large proportion of our activities are non-emergency,” McGraw said.
Both Bonville and Frankel stressed the team’s support to the community with non-emergency activities such as helping with flu clinics, rabies clinics, National Night Out, Special Olympics, township fireworks, the Labor Day Red, White and Bang Kids Triathlon, and township parades.
The team provides crowd control and assists with reuniting children who get separated from their parents at parades, and advises town officials of any emergency situations they see. Traffic control and ensuring the orderly movement of people and pets at the rabies clinic by the CERT frees town officials for other duties. At the flu clinic, the team registers citizens and directs them to the proper locations.
Oakley praised the team and their hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of support to the town.
“When something happens, they are ready and they answer the call,” he said. “They are there every single time, which is an amazing thing for the town. The first responders really appreciate them. The town recognizes CERT as a very important asset. No matter what they do, how small or how big the job is, they are always there to help.”
Most of the funding for the Lawrenceville CERT comes from DHS and FEMA, funneled through the State of New Jersey and on to Mercer County.
While Lawrence is lucky to have a fully functioning CERT, more help is always appreciated. There are no specific requirements for team members other than a desire to serve the town. Oakley notes there are no age or medical restrictions for CERT service.
For more information, go online to the township’s website, lawrencetwp.com.