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Citizens training for Homeland Security roles

Pam Zubeck

COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – Keeping America safe isn’t just the government’s job. It’s a citizen mission, too, according to the Department of Homeland Security.The Citizen Corps, which has attracted thousands of volunteers nationwide, is so popular in Colorado Springs, some classes have waiting lists.”There’s a lot of interest and excitement about the program,” said Bret Waters, director of Colorado Springs’ Office of Emergency Management. “People are wanting to know how to take care of themselves and their families.”Citizen Corps was established in 2002 by President Bush and moved to the Homeland Security Department in 2003.It encompasses new and existing programs, such as Neighborhood Watch, Volunteers in Police Service, or VIPS, and Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT. Fire Corps and Medical Reserve Corps were formed recently.The idea is to prepare the public for natural disasters and terrorist attacks with training in medicine, firefighting, neighborhood protection, basic preparedness and law enforcement.Training reduces the “worried well,” those not affected by a disaster who think they are and tap the system unnecessarily, said Greg Chun, director of California’s Citizen Corps, who oversees one of the nation’s most active programs. California has 95 councils composed of thousands of residents, 1,100 of whom take part in the annual Golden Guardian exercise.For Mike Huntingford, a retired Canadian air force captain living in Fountain, Colo.., being prepared means a stash of 12 large bottles of water, a battery-powered radio, candles, toilet paper and canned chili, vegetables and pineapple.Huntingford, who went through the El Paso County program last year, knows how to sustain himself and his wife, Madonna, and 21-year-old daughter, Lindsay, for at least three days.”I think society is too comfortable with the fact that 911 is just a call away, and they think that a response will be there in 5 or 10 minutes,” he said. “That’s not going to be the case in an overwhelming situation. It doesn’t take much to prepare yourself for 72 hours.”The 16-hour Community Emergency Response Team course, for example, is taught by experts in firefighting, emergency medicine and search and rescue. They cover disaster preparedness and psychology, fire safety and terrorism.Volunteers learn that disaster medical-treatment calls for doing the most for the many, not the few, and how to establish leadership at a scene.Katrina’s wakeFederal officials have made setting up Citizen Corps programs necessary for states receiving federal homeland security money. But control stops there. Federal officials say corps are run locally and dispatched by local authorities, not the feds.About 14,000 corps volunteers from 50 states mobilized after Hurricane Katrina. In Alabama, they set up and staffed a shelter for 1,000 victims. In Texas, corps members helped the Red Cross at the Houston Astrodome, which housed thousands from New Orleans.Federal officials proclaim that Citizen Corps councils exist in cities and counties that represent two-thirds of the nation’s population.Although interest is growing, Citizen Corps’ budget plunged from $40 million in 2004 to $15 million this year. In 2006, funding goes up to $20 million. The money funds advertising, instructors and programs.”I believe there was such a recalibration across the board with Katrina and with all the other things that had to be funded, we consider ourselves lucky that we got a $5 million increase for 2006,” said Liz DiGregorio, director of the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Community Preparedness, which includes Citizen Corps.State funding declined from $582,000 in 2004 to $225,929 this year. State officials estimate 4,230 people statewide are involved either as council members or trained volunteers in 19 Citizen Corps councils. The goal is to set up 25 councils.Those volunteers have seen various duties, such as after a June 2004 tornado in northeast Colorado when about 10 volunteers helped officials assess damage, identify needs and assist the elderly and disabled.DiGregorio said preparing citizens to look after themselves and lend a hand is a huge first step, but that help should be made part of local and state response blueprints.”It cannot be stand-alone, act independently,” she said of Citizen Corps. “That element of community and citizen preparedness must be integrated with local and state preparedness plans and response plans.”—On the Web:Citizen Corps http://www.citizencorps.gov


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