The CERT program started in Los Angeles, California before making its journey across the United States and abroad. Officials from LA travelled to Japan in February of 1985 to study its disaster response plans. The team discovered that Japan had extensive training programs that were neighborhood-based, focusing on fire suppression, light search and rescue operations, first aid, or evacuation.   The LA group traveled to Mexico City following a magnitude 8.1 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people. Although there had been no pre-disaster training, groups of volunteers conducted light search and rescue operations. The volunteers were credited with saving over 800 people, but over 100 volunteers died in the effort. Having determined that pre-disaster training was a valuable resource for the city, officials began training leaders of neighborhood watches to perform basic fire suppression, light search and rescue, and first aid. This first team of 30 people completed training in early 1986 and proved that the concept was viable through various drills, demonstrations, and exercises.

Following the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake Los Angeles created the Disaster Preparedness Unit within the Fire Department. Their goals were to:

  • Educate and train the public and government sectors in disaster preparedness
  • Research, evaluate, and disseminate disaster information, and
  • Develop, train, and maintain a network of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs).

In 1993, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) decided to make the concept and program available to communities nationwide. The Emergency Management Institute (EMI), in cooperation with the LAFD, expanded the CERT materials to make them applicable to all hazards.

The First CERT Program in Massachusetts

The success of the Arlington, Massachusetts CERT program is due to the vision and dedication of a few individuals who believed that citizens have an important role in community preparedness, response and mitigation. Sticking with their vision for decades, Joe Marshall and a few other individuals are creating a thriving CERT program that recently graduated its first class of twenty-five people, from middle-school kids through retirees in their late sixties.

This is the story of that community’s path in readiness.

Be Prepared

One of the founders of Arlington CERT, Joe Marshall, told me about its origins. “As Eagle Scouts, we began an Explorer Post, recruited other Scouts and girls who were interested in community service, particularly in the area of preparedness and emergency response. We asked for and received our Post number, which was ‘911,’ and became junior members of the Arlington Auxiliary Fire Department [a Civil Defense program dating from the beginnings of the Cold War].”

As Joe and the kids got older, there was less interest in the training and activities. As he puts it, “I really started out basically as a big kid so I spoke their language. Then I got older and it got harder to keep them engaged.” Joe’s interest, however, never waned. Looking at the decline of archaic Civil Defense programs, he knew that the Auxiliary Fire Department program was going to end. He looked for other opportunities to serve and provide opportunities for others to be engaged.

9-11 and the Citizen Corps

Following 9/11/2001, the concept of the Citizen Corps gained ground. Joe attended a leadership program at the Emergency Management Institute in Maryland, and came back with additional skills and knowledge, including a sense of the direction preparedness was taking in the post-9/11 world.


Learning how to write grant applications became a key skill. Joe notes that, “for a while, there was no grant money available, but I knew it was only a matter of time. When the RFPs started coming out, I applied, and finally received a couple of thousand dollars to replace the some of the aging equipment, and buy supplies. We applied for and received more grants, and were able to continue to replace our 30 year-old vehicle, obtain training and other equipment, and more supplies.”

“We had a long track record of helping the town with public events and emergencies, and the support of the town. Even then we weren’t successful with every application. But I met with people who had gotten some grants who helped me improve the applications, and I became better at it.”

Joe’s vision was to rebuild the community of volunteers who would be available to support the town and improve its readiness: now he had new resources and a new understanding of how the CERT program fit into the national readiness effort.

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Finally, in 2013 Joe was ready to begin to reach out to the wider community. He and the other members of the training team hoped that thirty people would show up for the informational meeting, and maybe twelve would complete the training program. They advertised the informational session, then waited, not knowing what to expect. In the words of training team member John Casey, “We had no idea how many people were going to show up. We were ready to spend the evening staring at each other.”

Instead, thirty-five people showed up, aged 15 through the mid-60s. Joe and the training team were stoked. Thirty people showed up for the first class, and the trainers had to order more kits. In the end, twenty-five people completed the course, and are more prepared to protect their families, neighbors and community, as well as participate in additional training programs.

The original CERT members responded to multiple incidents, including weather-related emergencies, water main bursts, and disease outbreaks. They have engaged in residential /neighborhood checks, general evacuation, sandbagging (when two lakes that were geographically separate began to flow into each other through a neighborhood), traffic and crowd management, staffing Emergency Operating Centers and shelters.

They also have performed hazard and threat assessments, mitigation activities, support for emergency planning in neighborhoods, schools, and town-wide, and public safety activities at community events. That original team is excited about expanding its ability to prepare and protect the community with additional volunteers.

The Town of Arlington, Massachusetts

Arlington, MA is a medium-size community west of Cambridge and Boston with a population of 42,844. Seventeen percent of the population is over 65, which is higher than the national average (14%).

The town has few industrial hazards, but due to its location, its central roads carry trucks bearing significant amounts and varieties of hazardous materials. It is also subject to weather-related emergencies, including snow, damaging winds, and flooding.

Modified by Thomas Francisco - Community Manager (Contractor) - GovDelivery