Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps volunteers. FILE PHOTO

Florida Keys residents remember the post-Hurricane Irma feud between anxious officials and evacuees who were desperate to re-enter the island chain and survey the damage their homes took. 

In a bid to strengthen the Florida Keys community, Monroe County Emergency Management realized the unique abilities of Keys residents to get things done after a hurricane. With lessons learned from Irma, formation of the Monroe Emergency Reserve Corps looked to bring volunteers with a variety of talents and skills who wished to help in times of an emergency in the Keys. 

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. The program trains volunteer residents to be self-sufficient and storm-proficient following a hurricane. The resulting certification enables those residents to return to the Keys before the rest of the population via an early re-entry placard. 

“The program teaches locals how to take care of themselves and neighbors until we can get mutual aid assistance,”said Shannon Weiner, Monroe County Emergency Management director.

“The first 24 to 48 hours are critical. We lean on them to take care of themselves and others around them.”

Weiner added that trained community volunteers also spend time inside the county Emergency Operations Center.

MERC training  — and the associated early re-entry placard — 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. To volunteer for this program, visit

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 For more information about FEMA’s CERT program, go to FEMA CERT.

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.