Ridgefield's Community Emergency Response team reflects on a pandemic year

RIDGEFIELD — In previous years, members of the town’s Community Emergency Response Team joked about what they would do in the event of a pandemic, according to Assistant Director Gerri Lewis. But when the fleeting thought became a calamitous reality last year, CERT sprung into action.

“(It) really wasn’t 100 percent on the radar since the nation’s response to it was not serious (initally),” Lewis recalled, “but we were thinking this could be something big.”

Ridgefield’s CERT was organized to serve the citizens of Ridgefield and surrounding towns during disasters, local emergencies and community-wide events. It operates under the town’s Office of Emergency Management, which is headed by Emergency Management Director Dick Aarons.

“For the last 10 years the team has staffed the (Emergency Operations Center), phone banks, damage assessment crews, coordinated searches for lost and missing persons, set up commodities distribution and taught disaster readiness throughout the community,” he said. “While the scope and length of the COVID response was unprecedented, the team was ready.”

On Thursday, CERT’s leaders will provide a “look-back” on its pandemic response at a meeting to discuss best public safety practices for the town alongside Ridgefield’s police and fire chiefs, Health Department Director Ed Briggs, First Selectman Rudy Marconi and officers from the Office of Emergency Management, among others.

Priorities shift

The same week the town organized its COVID task force, CERT’s Public Information Team formulated and deployed a communications strategy.

Last March, members were activated to run telephone information lines, relay daily communications to town leaders, develop neighborhood lists for additional outreach, and compile data from Hartford and other sources to feed the community’s need for information.

“As (case) numbers increased people became very nervous and had many questions about how to behave,” Lewis said. “Our Virtual Operations Team was posting on social media from eight in the morning til six at night every day (since) information ... was changing at warp speed.”

She added, “Because we’re all working for a common goal (and) overlap in our work, we multitask.”

When news of a vaccine arrived last fall, CERT shifted its operations to support the now-defunct mass vaccination site at Yanity Gym. Members were charged with running the clinic, as well as recruiting and managing volunteers.

Word got out that the clinic was “really well run,” Lewis said, prompting “droves” of people to assist CERT, the health department and RVNAhealth in catapulting Ridgefield’s vaccination rates. By April, the site had surpassed 10,000 doses administered.

“All of March, April and May we were loaded with volunteers, and those of us volunteering became educators to talk to people about what CERT does,” Lewis said. “Amazingly, many people reached out to say they would really like to become CERTs.”

CERTification

CERT saw a boost in membership as a result of the pandemic, with more than 30 people recently completing its certification requirements. The coursework involves one or two online classes, 20 hours worth of training and attendance at Super Saturday, a daylong event consisting of hands-on training in fire suppression, triage and other skills.

“I think (it’s) the largest class we’ve ever had, at least in the many years since I’ve been a CERT,” Lewis said. “The silver lining to the pandemic cloud is people want to be more prepared — they want to know what to do … (to) respond to an emergency in their community.”

Marconi said CERT delivers an added layer of security and support to residents in times of uncertainty.

“I can’t say enough about the CERTs and how much they’ve done,” he added. “If anyone wants to be a part of that team, we have a spot for you.”

For more information about CERT and how to become a member, email pio@ridgefieldoem.com and type “CERT” in the subject line.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com