Norfolk’s citizen emergency team responded to no emergencies

Posted at 8:14 PM, May 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-12 20:14:31-04

Norfolk, Va. - Norfolk has spent more than $100,000 worth of grant money in the past five years training and equipping a team of volunteers to help themselves and neighbors in emergencies and disasters. But in the past several years, the city hasn't used the team for any kind of emergency.

A NewsChannel 3 investigation also found that Norfolk's Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, makes no effort to report its training or activations either to the state or anywhere locally. The city's director of emergency management says reporting is not mandated, so Norfolk doesn't do it.

"The activations, that's all voluntary information to submit to the state," said James Redick. "There is no requirement to submit that, or any of our training, to the state."

That also makes it challenging to see what taxpayers are getting for this grant money. Redick conceded during an interview that team administrators do not post or publish any kind of records or documents showing what training the volunteers have received, or what events they've been activated for.

When pressed, city spokeswoman Lori Crouch said the only records would be from the CERT director's calendar. Through Crouch, CERT director Scott Mahone sent NewsChannel 3 a list he compiled of CERT activities since 2011. The list is filled with events like helping at parades and handing out water at running races. But all of the events were also staffed by volunteers with no special training. Records obtained by NewsChannel 3 show it costs around $500 to train and equip each volunteer.

CERT was once a FEMA-funded program that grew out of the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2011, the federal funding ended, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management stepped in.

Ted Costin, of VDEM, says now the state assistance is likewise waning. He said the state now can provide only limited help to local CERTs, even though he says the program is valuable.

"It is the locality's call to determine how they want to use their resources," he said. "But keep in mind that at every one of those (community) events, you had more eyes in the crowd, more resources deployed."

Redick told NewsChannel 3 he believes the city's CERT is a crucial and valuable resource that, when a disaster strikes, will be key in helping Norfolk recover.

"There is continuous training, there are continuous exercises," he said. "We do exercises throughout the year both locally and with our external partners."

Since the state stepped in five years ago, Norfolk has not responded to a single emergency.  According to Norfolk's records, the only critical event the team worked was during Hurricane Sandy when members staffed a pet shelter.

When CERT was under FEMA, Norfolk reported a single activation -- a winter storm. That means, in the team's 10-year history, records show it has been activated one time.

At the same time, the city has stocked the team with tens of thousands of dollars worth of computer tablets, cameras, radios and command-post supplies, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The city spent about $1,000 on pet first-aid kits. Records show city workers are paid $30 hourly to teach the classes. Each graduate gets a CERT backpack filled with emergency supplies at a cost of roughly $50 per pack. Records show Norfolk has spent around $20,000 of its grant money on these packs, even though there is no requirement for CERT graduates to volunteer a single day. The city charged NewsChannel 3 more than $230 for these public records.

When asked why the team did not respond more often, Redick said: "We're thankful that we're not experiencing those emergencies and disasters on a regular basis."

Chesapeake's CERT provided records showing its team logged more than 400 volunteer hours during three hurricanes and three snowstorms. During this winter's snowstorms, Chesapeake CERT mustered members with four-wheel drive trucks and Jeeps to get nurses to hospitals.

Hampton provided records showing its CERT responded during two hurricanes, helping with evacuations and documenting storm damage.

Norfolk emergency managers say more than 500 citizens have been trained through the CERT program, but only about 120 have remained active.

"That's one of our challenges, to keep folks engaged," Redick said. He dismissed the notion that perhaps more people would remain with the program if the team was used more often.

Redick acknowledged that the government is providing fewer grants, and it will be a challenge to continue the program. When the grant money dries up completely, he said he wants Norfolk's CERT to continue as a non-profit.

"This is about neighbors building neighborhoods," he said. "This is down at the street level, building that resilience. So, even passing water out at a race, it's added value because they are not only providing the refreshment, they are also there in case something happens."