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Inconsistent record keeping permeates volunteers’ emergency reports

Posted at 9:20 PM, May 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-14 00:00:11-04

Virginia Beach, Va. - In the past few years, a tornado has sliced the Oceanfront, a Navy jet slammed into an apartment complex, and hurricanes have battered Virginia Beach. During that time, the city's volunteer Community Emergency Response Team reported 47 "activations" to the state. But when NewsChannel 3 asked for details of those activations, the list the city provided did not include any of those emergencies.

Instead, Virginia Beach's CERT lists as "activations" routine events that other CERTs list as "community outreach," according to records obtained by NewsChannel 3. Virginia Beach's "activation" list included things like a movie night, a picnic, even a "general membership meeting."

Portsmouth, on the other hand, said it has never "officially deployed" its CERT team. Yet it provided records showing its CERT rescued elderly neighbors trapped in storm water, cleared downed trees, and logged damage reports.

A NewsChannel 3 investigation found wide disparities in how local CERT programs categorize events, and how and when they respond to emergencies. One city, Norfolk, does not report any of its training records or activities to the state, or to anyone. The only official list of Norfolk CERT activities is kept on the director's personal calendar, our investigation found.

The inconsistent recordkeeping -- or lack of records -- makes it nearly impossible to assess what taxpayers get for the nearly $600,000 in government grants that have flowed into local CERTs since 2009.

Ted Costin, of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said these inconsistencies happen because there are no rules or guidelines for how CERTs should report.

"They may consider an activation as attending the county fair and manning a booth," he said. "Everybody kind of counted things differently."

And, Costin said, there are no guidelines telling local CERTs when or how they should use their volunteers.

"It's a locality's call to determine how they want to use their resources," he said.

Our investigation also found significant differences in how cities use and manage those resources.

Records show that while Norfolk and Virginia Beach have not activated their teams for emergencies, Chesapeake routinely does. Chesapeake provided records detailing 400 volunteer hours spent in three hurricanes and three snowstorms. This year, according to the city's CERT, members manned four-wheel-drive trucks and Jeeps to deliver nurses to hospitals during snowstorms.

Hampton's CERT reported its team helped evacuate neighbors during Hurricane Isabel and Tropical Storm Hannah, and then later logged damage assessments.

Newport News, like Norfolk and Virginia Beach, primarily used its team to staff sports events. The team also staffed pet shelters for two hurricanes.

All cities contacted for this story said the real value in CERTs is not what they have done, but what they will be able to do if a major disaster strikes the region.

"This is about neighbors building neighborhoods," said James Redick of Norfolk's emergency-planning agency. "This is down at the street level building that resilience. "

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Norfolk’s citizen emergency team responded to no emergencies