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Community: Groups use federal program to prepare for emergencies

Volunteer groups in communities across Illinois are taking on training and organizational responsibilities to respond to potential disasters, whether natural or criminal. But preliminary data in a recent study by Southern Illinois University Carbondale shows that these Community Emergency Response Teams, which are funded through the Department of Homeland Security, react differently to emergency situations, depending on whether they are based in rural or urban settings. 

In urban areas, the community groups primarily back up well-trained, well-equipped first responders. They can take on duties such as answering telephones, transporting special needs people and preparing food.

However, in rural areas they often are the first responders, and citizen preparedness is based more on self-reliance, says project director Courtney Flint, an assistant professor in the SIUC's department of natural resources and environmental sciences. "They are used to taking care of themselves and their neighbors," she says, "so they know who needs what."

Yet the basic premise of the training, which can be as simple as using a fire extinguisher and applying first aid to specialized training in handling hazardous materials or dispensing antibiotics and vaccines, is aimed at educating citizens to be their own first line of defense while waiting for police or fire and rescue.

"Hurricane Katrina brought it out even more that a lot of people just don't know how to do some stuff, [like] keep 72 hours of food on tap in case first responders can't get to you, so you're not entirely stranded," says Kristin Canterbury-Evans, the state coordinator of the Illinois Citizen Corps Council that oversees the community response program.

The growth of community training has been "exponential" since 9/11, says Flint. Before the attacks that day, there were only about 175 trained community teams nationwide. The current list is more than 2,400. Originally part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the program was moved to Citizen Corps, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. 

The Illinois Citizen Corps Council is part of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. Canterbury-Evans says Illinois has 65 to 70 active community teams but that it has been difficult to build a solid data set. About 95 groups have signed up under the Citizen Corps Council, which is a new requirement before forming a team. Some, like the Champaign Fire Department, choose not to form an emergency response team but offer training in basic fire suppression and first aid skills to as many people as want to learn. Tim Murray, manager of the Champaign corps council, says that beginning this month training will include storm kits and basic disaster drill procedures like turning off the gas and electricity to homes. 

However, funds for training are getting harder to come by for most groups, says Canterbury-Evans. The fiscal year 2007 budget for the national program was cut 25 percent, for a total outlay of $15 million. She says that's also the outlook for the 2008 federal budget.

"It's a dilemma," she says, "that the more we grow, the less money we have to spread around to the groups serving their communities."

by Beverley Scobell
Illinois Issues April, 2007

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