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How to Form a Community Emergency Response Team

By Harrison Kelly

As the number of powerful natural disasters continues to increase across the United States every year, local governments need to have proper disaster mitigation strategies in place. To prepare for natural disasters and reduce the number of people in danger, municipal governments need to form a local community emergency response team, or CERT.

Luckily, Emergency Management software and other government technology solutions are here to help your municipality form a CERT, prepare for and recover from a community disaster. 

But what is a community emergency response team, and how can your local government recruit community based, and even out of town volunteers to get involved? Follow along to learn everything you need to know about establishing a CERT for your community.

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What is a Community Emergency Response Team?

A Community Emergency Response Team, otherwise known as a CERT, is a team of community members at the local level that are educated on emergency preparedness and the community emergency response plan.

In addition to regularly providing citizen emergency response training to members of the community, expert CERTs will act as resourceful volunteers to respond in the aftermath of an emergency situation. 

Why Are CERTs Essential at the Local-Level?

In recent memory, wildfires were ravaging both California and Canada as Hurricane Ida rolled through the east coast. Due to disasters like these, towns and cities will need to analyze which natural disaster types pose the biggest threat to their community, and create a citizen emergency response training program to educate CERT members in their region.

Failure to prepare for natural disasters accordingly could result in the destruction of residential and public infrastructure, a drastic number of preventable deaths, and an inadequate emergency response and recovery rollout. 

Community emergency response teams can drastically increase your community's preparedness level by educating community members and working in the field in the event of a disaster. 

How to Recruit CERT Members?

Many community members across the country are actively volunteering in a CERT to make a positive impact in their neighborhoods. Properly trained volunteers can provide critical support to professional emergency management officials from the local, state, and Federal levels in the event of a crisis. Your municipal government will need to raise awareness around your emergency response team and get in touch with people interested in civic engagement in order to build up a reliable CERT. 

Here are some of the best practices for community emergency response team organization: 

  • Seek Relevant Professionals: 

Effective CERT members often have relevant expertise and training that can be applied quickly in an emergency situation to support or reinforce existing emergency response agencies and employees. Typically, the community-members attracted to this volunteer opportunity are well equipped to learn everything they need to.  Relevant CERT members might be retired doctors and nurses, teachers, military veterans, or former first responders, and likely will be easy to work with. 

  • Attend networking events: 

As an elected official, you should be networking with savvy community-members. While speaking with members of the community, spread the word to these people with a clear interest in contributing within their neighborhoods. You may be surprised how many people show interest in volunteering. 

  • Promote your CERT via your website and social media:

An ADA compliant website should be easy to navigate and provide community members with valuable information. Add an easy-to-locate section to your website for the CERT volunteering opportunity, and be sure to share about it via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NextDoor, and LinkedIn. 

  • Spread the word to friends, family, government workers, and known volunteers in the community: 

Word of mouth can spread pretty quickly. Take some time to contact people within your municipal workers’ immediate networks; you can find trustworthy CERT recruits of all ages and have them spread the word to others.

Streamline your government’s human resources department and make the process of selecting volunteers more efficient. Post volunteer opportunities and job openings, such as an opportunity to become a member of CERT on your website and allow applicants to submit their application with all necessary documentation completely online. Your government’s HR department can then receive and filter through volunteer applications much quicker this way to get your CERT off the ground. 

To learn more about public sector recruiting, read our How to Recruit Government Workers guide. 

What Should CERT Members Be Trained On (And Train Others On)?

Community emergency response team members need to be well educated on the natural disasters most relevant to your location. In most instances, they’ll be the ones:

  • Educating community members about preparing for and responding to natural disasters
  • Helping to implement mitigation and resilience strategies across the community
  • Working with first responders and local officials in the wake of an accident or emergency

As a result, you’ll want to educate CERT members about:

Hazardous Risks to Your Community

Your municipality will need to do some risk assessment, and determine which natural disasters or man-made accidents pose the most serious risk to your community-members. CERTs should then undergo citizen emergency response training directly focused on the most common disasters in your region.

Consider your immediate needs based on your community's history with earthquakes, floods, wildfires, mudslides, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other potential hazards or events such as train derailment or chemical spill.

Consider how each of these natural disasters could affect your community, and check out our guides on each of them: 

1. Tornadoes

  • Build a team of volunteers that are trained to respond to tornadoes by registering community volunteers in advance for the response team, and organize efforts to rescue people and animals caught in the storm and trapped in the debris. 

Consider these Tornado Mitigation & Response Strategy tips. 

2. Wildfires

  • Constituents should be prepared to evacuate their homes and businesses at a moment's notice if a wildfire breaks out. Ensure they are made aware of pre-established evacuation routes and emergency shelter locations now. Municipalities should use every opportunity to inform constituents of best practices to mitigate fire hazards. 

Read on for more information on Local Government Wildfire Mitigation & Disaster Planning. 

3. Flooding

  • Flooding often occurs in the same areas repeatedly, although sometimes flooding can happen in random or new areas. Ensure your community members are already aware of commonly flooded places to avoid in the case of a flooding disaster, or flash floods.

Read on for more information on Local Government Flood Mitigation and Disaster Planning.

4. Landslides

  • Intense rainfall can often cause landslides, continually monitoring water drainage in your neighborhoods and ways to make adjustments or improvements will be critical in preventing flood and landslide damage.

Consider these tips for Local Government Landslide Mitigation

5. Winter storms

  • Create a guide of all the best items to have in your home during a winter storm, and the best ways to stock up to prepare for severe weather, in case constituents are stuck inside for an extended period of time. 
Learn more about Local Government Winter Preparedness & Mitigation.

How To Run Emergency Response Trainings

One of the most important jobs of a CERT is to educate community members on how to prepare for and respond to a major disaster situation. Make sure that CERT members are trained on proper techniques, and how to provide resourceful tips on things like emergency evacuation routes, storm mitigation techniques, how to prepare go-bags, and how to apply for individual assistance from FEMA following a Federally declared disaster. 

Be sure to provide hazard training to CERT members so that they can keep themselves and others safe in the event of an emergency. This includes knowledge regarding instances such as avoiding floodwater and downed power lines, as well as proper mold-remediation and muck and gut techniques.  

  • Pro Tip: Consider training your emergency response crew on how to best train different age groups, like children and senior citizens, since CERTs will perform training for audiences of all ages. Also consider training CERTS on how to interact properly with community-members in danger who may have disabilities.  

Here are emergency management forms provided by GovPilot to ensure all community members are accounted for: 

Implementing an Emergency Response Plan

The most critical aspect of a CERT role is assisting in the immediate disaster response plan, from performing search and rescue missions to performing critical medical operations to taking notes on the level of damage across the community. 

How CERTs Interact With Local Professional Responders

Introduce your CERT members to official emergency responders like police and firefighters within your community, and teach volunteers about how they can act as an extension of the official response team in rescue operations. 

How to Run a Great CERT Program?

A well-trained CERT can accomplish a lot of meaningful things for your community including training constituents, aiding residents during emergencies, and assisting in community recovery efforts.

Here are some best practices for your municipal government to leverage when formulating a CERT:

1. Set Clear Objectives

Government officials that are formulating a community emergency response team need to consider: why?

Why does your community need a CERT? What emergencies pose the largest threat? Where do constituents lack education on how to address a natural disaster? 

Considering these questions before formulating your training for CERTs and community members will make the job substantially easier, and will have volunteers more engaged with an active objective in mind. Consider hosting a local public meeting to discuss these questions with larger groups. 

2. Hold Regular Trainings for CERT Members

CERTs are typically trained annually on natural disaster mitigation and response techniques. After taking the time to formulate a well-thought out training, hold extensive yearly sessions for CERT volunteers. Also consider offering more specific disaster training in-between that directly cover the natural disasters that pose the biggest threats to your community. 

3. Follow Ready.Gov & FEMA’s Best Practices

In addition to your own personalized training sessions, emergency managers can also lean into FEMA and Ready.gov for additional support.

Here are a few ways that the federal government can help:

  1. Have CERT Members Attend Official FEMA Training Schedules:

    FEMA offers an extensive course at the community level that provides instructions on disaster preparedness, basic disaster response skills, first-aid training, and other important natural disaster information.
  2. Register Your CERT: 

    At community.fema.gov, you can make your CERT officially recognized at the national level, and will get access to educational resources for disaster best practices and networking opportunities with other emergency response programs
  3. Training For Young CERT Recruits:

    Since you want people of all ages in your community to be involved in your CERT, consider leveraging ready.gov’s training program specifically designed for teens when getting high-school students involved. Have CERT Members Conduct Regular Citizen Emergency Response Trainings & Drills

One of the biggest objectives in forming a CERT is for the team to actively train community members on the best practices before, during, and after a storm or emergency event. Training sessions open to the public should be regular occurrences, and CERT volunteers should also educate children in local schools and the elderly at retirement homes on things like fire safety, emergency evacuation routes, how to take cover during storms, and where communication channels can be accessed before and after storms.

4. Acquire All of the Necessary Resources for Your CERT

Having the right infrastructure and materials in place will be critical for your emergency team's success. 

You’ll need proper physical and IT infrastructure, like buildings to hold regular CERT training sessions and technology to improve workflows within the disaster preparedness and response plans for your CERT team to implement.

You’ll also need proper CERT equipment like gloves, first aid kits, TYVEK suits, and face masks to use in training sessions AND in the field. 

For more advice on how to specifically train CERT members and constituents on specific storm-types, read on with this helpful Disaster Preparedness Guide: How Local Governments Build Resilient Communities

How Can Technology Help CERTs and Local Governments with Disaster Management? 

Leveraging modern digital government infrastructure can ease the burden of government workers and CERT members alike. 

Here is some technology you should consider for your municipality when taking action to improve your disaster preparedness:

  • Online CERT Volunteer Registration

Make applying to join a CERT as simple as possible for constituents. Digital volunteer registration will allow constituents to join in with a few simple clicks. Utilize digital forms to quickly register spontaneous volunteers who are not members of the CERT but nonetheless seek to volunteer their time in the aftermath of a disaster to do things like debris removal and food/clothes distribution. 

  • Communication platforms

Local governments should coordinate a communication line that will allow for easy contact with CERTs, emergency personnel, and community-members.

Learn more about GovPilot’s Report-A-Concern software for  non-emergency citizen concern reporting. 

  • GIS Mapping Software

In the wake of the storm, CERTs and government officials will need to assess the situation as quickly as possible, so that your local government can determine what issues are top priorities before applying for federal relief funds. 

Geographic Information System (GIS) Mapping will allow officials to make note of damages in-real-time on a 3D map, and inform the public of the locations of emergency infrastructure such as triage centers, shelters, food distribution sites, and FEMA assistance resources. 

  • Automated permitting software

CERT volunteers should actively push constituents on the importance of using disaster resistant materials and techniques when building. Allowing residential and commercial builders to quickly file permits online will expedite the process and encourage more constituents to build disaster resilient infrastructure, homes, and businesses. 

Prioritize CERTS In Your Municipality  

The significant increase in severe natural disasters in recent years has proven that local governments and communities need to be prepared. Community Emergency Response Teams are an integral aspect of that preparation. Consider what your community needs to be educated on such as local risks, recruit volunteers, and work with community-members to be as prepared for a disaster as possible. 

To learn more about how cloud-based government management software can help with resilience and disaster preparedness, schedule a consultation.



  • What is a CERT?

Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) are a team of volunteers within a community that are trained on disaster mitigation and response strategies. Typically, the volunteers host regular community events for training civilians, help to implement emergency preparedness projects, and provide immediate assistance to emergency responders at a disaster site.These volunteers play a huge role in ensuring the safety of other citizens during a disaster. 

  • How Should CERTs Train Community-Members?

CERT training should provide constituents with a realistic approach to disaster mitigation, drill training for events like wildfires or earthquakes, and disaster survival in the wake of a storm to provide family safety and a game plan for evacuation. All community members should be trained, regardless of age or disability. 

  • Who Should Get Involved With CERTs?

Your local government should get a diverse group of volunteers to get involved. Take a non-discrimination approach, with various genders, ages, economic classes, etc. so that volunteers can spread the world within their immediate circle and ensure the safety of every sub-culture within your community!

Interested in learning more about how to improve your municipality? Read on:

Tags: Constituent Engagement, GIS Map, Blog, Emergency Management, Civic Engagement