As Hurricane Ivan lashed the Cayman Islands on 12 September, 2004, some residents of Belford Estates in Bodden Town sprang into action to help neighbours who needed to evacuate their homes in rising winds and rain water.
The work done that day and night was a clarion call for a community group to be set up to deal with future disasters and emergencies at the estate.
Errington Webster, team captain of what would become the Belford Estates Community Emergency Response Team, which now has 23 members, explains that the group has prepared a three-phase plan to prepare and react to a disaster.
“We hold monthly meetings, with two meetings a month during hurricane season,” says Webster, who explains that prior to a hurricane or other disaster, the team implements phase one of the plan. That entails the team collecting and updating information relating to the number of people who intend to remain at home during a storm; determining the households in which there are elderly or sick people who might need assistance if an emergency arises; and assessing the general threat level the community faces.
After the storm or emergency passes, phase two kicks in when the team does a headcount of those who are in the estate to establish if anyone is missing. Phase three involves search and rescue in the event that a person cannot be found or is in trouble and the professional emergency service providers are delayed in reaching the site.
Since the team was established in 2006, Webster says so far only phase one of its three-pronged response has had to be implemented - during Hurricane Paloma and in heavy rain storms.
Webster says the impetus for setting up the group was the possibility that emergency vehicles might have difficulty reaching Belford Estates due to roads being cut off in a hurricane or severe flooding. “Knowing that there could be a delay in government-provided rescue teams reaching us, we decided to form the teams to give some assistance and advance help to the residents within the community,” says Webster, who works for the Fire Services Department.
The team worked fairly independently until 2010, when it was incorporated into groups that were certified officially as community response teams by Hazard Management Cayman Islands, which, as its name suggests, coordinates the management of hazards facing the Islands.
Now, it is one of Community Emergency Response Teams in Cayman, which includes North Sound Estates and North Sound Gardens Citizens Association.
The groups, known as CERT teams, undergo 22 hours of training, usually done over an eight-week period. Once certification and training by Hazard Management is complete, each responder is given his or her own emergency kit.
Training includes first aid, CPR, fire safety and suppression, disaster preparedness, stress management, disaster psychology, shelter management, initial damage assessment, vulnerability and capacity assessment.
Omar Afflick, director of Hazard Management, said volunteers from the district of North Side were currently being trained as a CERT team.
He says all communities considered highly vulnerable to hurricanes or natural disasters may eventually have their own emergency response teams. “That’s the next planned move,” says Afflick.
Individual volunteers and community groups can contact Hazard Management if they are interested in joining or forming a team, he says. “Once we come around to that community, we will advise them and they can participate,” says Afflick.
Each team works within its own community and is not deployed to other areas, explains Afflick. “They are there for their own communities. They have a role in preparedness, response and in the aftermath of an emergency,” he says.
The teams’ preparedness work involves assessing vulnerabilities and potential hazards within an area and determining who is likely to be affected. “That preparedness work might involve stocking up, getting ropes, tarpaulins and ice chests for the community,” says Afflick.
Following or during an emergency, they might be called upon to help with “light search and rescue”, says Afflick, who added: “They are not expected to go out in dangerous situations to effect a rescue. That is left to the professionals, the fire department and police, etc.”
“After the event, they can do a roll call of the community to ensure that everyone is accounted for and all are safe,” he says.
Fourteen members of the North Sound Gardens Citizens Association completed their training in May this year, where they were given the resources and training they needed to effectively be first responders in their area in the event of a disaster, if professional responders were not able to get to their community.
“What this has done is to strengthen us as community members and given us the resilience to identify hazards in the community and what to do in an aftermath of a disaster,” team leader Brenda Dawkins said in an interview with the Caymanian Compass on completion of the training. “The whole overall aim of the programme is to save lives and to protect property.”