Self-sufficient, storm-proficient

MERC & CERT training makes volunteers part of the solution

Every Florida Keys resident who recalls Hurricane Irma also remembers the bitter, post-storm feud between anxious officials and angry evacuees, desperate to re-enter the Keys and survey their damaged homes.

In the months following Hurricane Irma, Monroe County Emergency Management and its director at the time, Marty Senterfitt, acknowledged the unique abilities of Keys residents to get things done after a hurricane.

A program was envisioned that would train volunteer residents to be self-sufficient and storm-proficient following a hurricane. The resulting certification would enable those residents to return to the Keys before the rest of the population via an early re-entry placard. “After Irma … I decided … I’m not working for the government; I’m going to work for the people of the Florida Keys,” Senterfitt said in May 2018. “They’re the ones who can get things done around here after a storm. There’s such an energy in this community and a willingness to be part of the solution.”

That solution now includes the Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps, or MERC. Launched in October 2018, MERC now includes a group of trained community volunteers who are eligible for an early re-entry placard once their MERC certification is complete.

“We heard up and down the Keys that people wanted to be allowed back into the Keys sooner for the next storm,” Senterfitt said while developing the program that would enable evacuees to return early and ensure they are part of the solution, not the problem. The Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps, now under the leadership of Kim Koch, has trained more than 500 members since 2018.

“Beginning with ourselves, we will be prepared to work together as emergency response teams to assist our families, neighbors and community in a time of disaster or need through volunteer services that protect life, environment and property,” states the MERC vision. “We are committed to providing the best public service through education, training and volunteer service. Our vision is to support first responders with trained volunteers that organize themselves at the time of disaster or need and provide immediate assistance.”

MERC training  — and the associated early re-entry placard — first requires participants to complete a free online class designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The class is available anytime online.

Once the FEMA course is complete, participants must complete 16 hours of in-person classroom training offered over two days at various times and locations throughout the Keys. The online FEMA course is a prerequisite for the in-person training. The third phase of hands-on training includes four hours of practical skills and exercises in first aid and fire safety.

In addition to MERC, local residents can also obtain training through the Community Emergency Response Team program to be prepared for emergency situations and assist first responders. Citizen volunteers can go through the CERT training with Monroe County, Islamorada Fire Rescue and Emergency Management Department and Key West Fire Rescue and Emergency Management Department. 

CERT members are trained in areas that will help the citizens take care of themselves and others, should the need arise, during a major emergency or disaster. As an organized team, CERT provides a valuable support function to the professional emergency responder whose arrival might be delayed for hours or even days due to the nature and/or scope of the event.

Activities include providing first responders support, residential checks, processing supplies or donations, initial damage assessment, staffing shelters and distributing emergency information to the public.

To sign up or for more information in Key West, call the Key West Fire Department at 305.809.3933. Get more information on Islamorada’s CERT program by calling 305.664.6490 or emailing [email protected]

Citizen volunteers who go through Monroe County’s Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) and become part of the volunteer Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps can obtain early re-entry placards. To volunteer for this program, visit https://mercorps.org. For more information about FEMA’s CERT program, go to FEMA CERT.

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. She's married to a saintly — and handy — fisherman, and has been stringing words together in Key West since 1998.