United Tribes NewsTribes have advantage in filling emergency gap
20 February 2004
Story and photos by Dennis J. Neumann
BISMARCK, ND - There's a small but potentially significant gap in the way communities respond to catastrophic disasters, like a huge tornado or unexpected explosion. Not enough has been done to prepare people who are on the scene when it happens - regular folks who can do some good in the time before professionals arrive.
"Basically we're teaching civilians how to respond to an emergency situation," said Barbara Schmitt, University Center Director at United Tribes Technical College. "Being able to react to a situation can help fill that gap."
Schmitt is the co-coordinator of UTTC's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). The campus community of about 1,000 people located in the greater Bismarck-Mandan metro area is the first locality in North Dakota to assemble and train such a team. The training is promoted by the North Dakota League of Cities and is reminiscent of Civil Defense programs of the Cold War era.
"There's a renewed emphasis on preparedness after 9/11," said Schmitt. "The President declared that people should be self-reliant and be able to help themselves and their neighbors in case of disaster or emergency. The UTTC administration has taken that seriously."
The college recruited and organized 34 staff members from offices in all buildings on its 105-acre campus into four response teams. Emergency gear such as hard hats, identifying vests, safety goggles, rubber gloves and other emergency supplies are kept at the workstations of CERT members for easy access.
Members have attended meetings, viewed videotapes and received training in search and rescue, first aid, blood-born pathogens, and basic fire suppression. During a recent training session the teams were timed in their response to a simulated airplane crash into a building on the college campus, which is adjacent to the Bismarck airport.
"It felt like this was a real situation," said CERT member Julie Cain, a UTTC counselor. "We have a real need for this. We've already had tornado warnings here. Who would save us? It wouldn't be our security force, they don't have enough people."
The simulated exercise was aimed at teaching how to "do as much good in the least amount of time," said Schmitt. How long it would be before the arrival of professionals depends on the magnitude of the event.
"In the case of a tornado with major destruction it might be 24 hours before emergency professionals could get to certain areas," said Lt. Joey Vandervliet of the Bismarck Fire Department who conducts public safety training and helped during the UTTC simulation. "Realistically, the time would probably be much shorter but certainly there'd be a need for self-reliance."
While emergency training for lay people in larger communities has yet to become widespread in North Dakota, it appears that American Indian communities have the right formula for getting people trained for the unexpected.
"Tribal communities are close knit when it comes to emergencies," said Vandervliet, who also staffs the ambulance that serves the Standing Rock Reservation near Bismarck-Mandan. "People there look after each other. And they're willing to take the time to learn how to do it. It's unbelievable."
In larger communities there's a tendency to rely on trained professionals and first responders who are readily available, according to Vandervliet. Emergency training may be shifting away from community-wide efforts to an emphasis on church groups, certain businesses and neighborhoods, which have that closer-knit quality found in tribal communities.
UTTC has offered its CERT training free of charge to tribal entities. The college organizes the sessions in partnership with local emergency agencies such as fire departments and EMTs. Training has already been provided at Sisseton-Wahpeton and Spirit Lake. A future session is planned at Fort Berthold.
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