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Whitfield County recognizes EMA CERT graduates, more volunteers sought

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On Jan. 9 at 6:00 p.m. 15 individuals were officially recognized for their willingness to brave man-made and natural disasters on behalf of their neighbors, family, and friends during the 2013 Whitfield County CERT Academy 9 graduation service. And that is no small thing when one considers that the number of first responders available in any jurisdiction pales in comparison to the typical personnel resources needed during any major crisis.

For example, consider the W. Va. chemical spill, where more than 100,000 people were suddenly without the use of tap water for basic essential use. And to make matters worse, bottled water was in short supply after people bombarded stores seeking it. Someone had to help first responders get additional bottled water to the remaining people in need while police worked to control store crowds, and that happened to fall in part to citizens in addition to police and fire personnel, like the citizen WSOC TV reported on Jan. 10.

Finding citizens who are willing to do more than just donate water in a crisis, like going through two days of emergency training at the expense of their personal lives and family time, can be a challenge. But when one considers a community's population total compared to the number of emergency responder personnel it has, then it becomes a challenge that must be overcome. And Whitfield County leaders are committed to that cause.

The United States Census estimated that more than 303,000 people lived in the North Georgia area as of 2012. But the two major law enforcement agencies that serve that geographical local--the Dalton Police Department and the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office--only boast 85 sworn officers and approximately 50 deputies, respectively.

The two major fire departments that service Dalton, Varnell, Tunnel Hill and Cohutta include the Dalton Fire Department and the Whitfield County Fire Department. But like their law enforcement counterparts, these emergency fire agencies operate with limited personnel, too: 93 full-time employees for the DFD and only 62 full-time firefighters for the WCFD.

That means that more than 303,000 people in the North Georgia area would have less than 300 police and fire department personnel combined to assist in a major disaster that impacted their community. And that could be a catastrophe if they were faced with situations W. Va. experienced this week.

And that's why Claude C. Craig, the director of the Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency and his deputy director Jeff B. Ownby, are so committed to changing that statistical inadequacy.

We try to prepare for the worst, but hope and pray for the best," when it comes to a crisis situation, Claude Craig said. And it is that optimism coupled with skilled preparation that has served the EMA leader well in his lengthy career, first as a sheriff's deputy and later in emergency management.

Both men's commitment to the emergency preparedness of their community is evident by the number of citizen volunteers they have recruited and trained since the 2010 creation of the Whitfield County CERT Program. To date, 180 volunteers have been trained in the CERT program over the span of a total of 9 academy sessions.

We have a real active program," Jeff Ownby said. But he neglected to mention that he has played a very critical role in keeping that program so active.

One of his most recent recruits, Constance Morris, can't say enough great things about him as a CERT coordinator.

When I first met Jeff and Amy Cooley, another CERT coordinator, it was in CERT Academy 8. I was struck by their ability to be both professional and extremely knowledgeable about every topic covered, while also maintaining an air of friendliness and down-to-earth approachability. It made the training very enjoyable.

Volunteers receive book training as well as hands-on experience in the academy sessions, with Jeff and Amy using mock disasters as a method to teach rescue techniques and more. But anyone who has reservations about whether they can handle the physical exertion required in these drill-type activities need not worry according to Morris, who said that the techniques taught by the CERT coordinators make it possible for everyone to contribute as a volunteer, regardless of physical weight, height or age.

The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners are committed to seeing the number of volunteers for this program increase exponentially, for the best interest of the community they serve. And they are determined to use their support to make it happen. That's why Craig told this reporter that funding will allow for more new training academies to take place in 2014 than has occurred thus far in the three-year-old program. In fact, the next opportunity to participate will be March 29-30, when CERT Academy 10 begins.

But on Thursday night Craig, Ownby and Cooley were on hand to applaud and honor the 15 new academy graduates that just completed the two-day training. And those individuals include Ania Arias, Diana Molina-Coffey, Robert Craig (Claude's son), Hector Cruz, Ashley Flood, Larry Flowler, J. Steve Gray, Wade Lewallen, Jim McDonald, Fawn Montelongo, Adriana Medina, Kim Parks, Bill Robbins, Nicole Sherrill and Li Wong.

Conasauga Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge David J. Blevins was in the audience Thursday night. And he had this to say about the important emergency program and its most recent graduates:

I really appreciate the citizens who come out to make our community better. This is something I would be interested in doing myself."

It is a perfect time for all those interested in learning how to prepare and assist authorities during major emergencies to sign up for the free upcoming March Whitfield County EMA CERT training. And who knows, as the saying goes, "the life you save could be your own"--or that of someone you love.

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