Jordan Villwock, Laguna Beach Police emergency management coordinator, speaks during a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) class held at the Suzi Q Center in Laguna Beach on Wednesday. (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline Pilot / March 19, 2014)

A history of fires, floods and mudslides led the city of Laguna Beach to form a Disaster Preparedness Committee in 2011 and then the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in 2012.

CERT is a Federal Emergency Management Agency-certified program that has been adopted in many cities nationwide. It helps residents learn to assist first-responders – or work in their absence – when disaster strikes.

"When we have a disaster, the city needs to create order in an atmosphere of chaos," Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said via email.

The most recent Laguna CERT class started this week and plans to graduate in May.

Pearson said she has experienced two major disasters in her 12 years on the City Council, five since she has lived in Laguna Beach.

"One thing I've learned on the City Council is that in order to put an emphasis or ongoing focus on something, the issue needs to be a part of the permanent infrastructure," she said in an email.

Sue Kempf, chairwoman of the Disaster Preparedness Committee, said since few firefighters and police officers live inside city limits, the community has to learn to rely on civilian help.

"During the flood in 2010, we had residents calling and asking what they should do," Kempf said. "We needed to get neighborhoods organized in a way that they could help themselves."

The committee's mission is to help organize neighborhoods, support the CERT program and work on any emergency issues in need of support.

The committee recently helped the Fire Department with improving signage on dead-end streets, or narrow roads, and closing parks on red flag days.

"We also work on vegetation management," Kempf said, "to help remove vegetation from high-risk fire zones and clear brush, as needed."

Matt Lawson, a member of the committee and one of the original CERT members, said CERT is around to lend support to public-safety personnel during emergencies.

"We are trained to support the activities of emergency responders, who have more training than we do," he said. "We can help with evacuations, light search and rescue, triage and first aid, and as civilians we will be at the site where the emergency might be."

Pearson said she is proud of committee and CERT program.

"We need extra-calm heads and hands to assist us — whether it is to contact residents, help us with traffic control or communications, or aid with first aid — the need is always there in a disaster," she said in an email. "That is what CERT-trained individuals bring to the table."

But she is not only proud of the residents. She said she also appreciates how the Police, Fire and Marine Safety departments have embraced the committee and the training program.

"Watching the collaboration between the residents and our safety departments has been very gratifying to me," she said.

According to Jordan Villwock, emergency management coordinator at the Laguna Beach Police Department, CERT starts with 25 hours of training in disaster-preparedness followed by a written and practical exam.

There are currently 76 members, and they are actively recruiting more, according to Jordan Villwock emergency management coordinator at the Laguna Beach Police Department. Members must be at least 18 and live or work in Laguna Beach.

Lawson called the CERT experience rewarding and urges anyone who loves Laguna to join.

"Unique geography and topography make Laguna Beach such a wonderful place to live," Lawson said, "but it also makes us vulnerable for which we need to be prepared for."

The Disaster Preparedness Committee meets at 5:30 p.m. on the first Monday of every month at the Suzi Q Center, 380 Third Street and is open to the public. Agendas are posted on the website 72 hours in advance.

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