Are you prepared
First responders train Villages residents for a disaster

Published May 11. 2003 8:30AM


THE VILLAGES - While Midwestern states are picking up the pieces left by a series of powerful tornadoes, residents in The Villages have been training to handle any Central Florida disasters, should they come.

Members of the first Villages' Citizens Emergency Response Team completed their last and seventh day of training Saturday and received a graduation certificate and disaster supply kit from the Marion County Sheriff's Department.

Trained citizens can be invaluable in a disaster, whether it comes through natural or manmade causes, said Gail Lazenby, a paramedic with The Villages Fire-Rescue Service. Recalling an auto accident that took the lives of two people and injured more than two dozen last December, Lazenby said the emergency crews had more than they could handle.

"That's exactly the kind of circumstance, any kind of local disaster that overwhelms you," Lazenby said.

"Look at what happened in Missouri and Tennessee, and now Oklahoma," he said, referring to last week's tornadoes. "We don't want it to happen here, but it could. The events of 9-11 have heightened the awareness of the need for CERT teams. We've learned that no community is immune from disaster, and that could be terrorism as well."

During Saturday's session, participants conducted a mock disaster drill, acting out what they had learned in the classroom. Other residents volunteered to be "victims." Working in groups of three, the rescuers bandaged head wounds, put arms and legs in splints and evaluated the severity of injuries.

Villages residents Nan and Jack Kabat had visited South Florida in 1992 a couple weeks after Hurricane Andrew struck. Nan said she will never forget how terrible Dade County looked.

"It made a real big imprint on both of us," Nan said. "When we heard this course came open, we signed up because we didn't know if it might affect us or someone else someday."

That was the main focus of the course - storm disasters, said Tom Goforth, emergency management coordinator for Marion County. When emergency crews can't get to the site quickly, trained citizens are able to step in and help, Goforth said.

"We teach them how to organize the chaos," he said. "If it's in their neighborhood, they have to go in and search the houses. But, the most important thing is to first call and get help to come."

Sometimes, you can't get help, said Hal Shechter, a volunteer instructor with Marion County emergency management. That's where the training comes in, he said.

"People depend too much on 911," he said. "What happens if you run into a major disaster where there is no 911? How long did it take people to get out to Andrew? It took them a week in some cases. Phone lines could be down. The whole system could be overtaxed."

Although these people may never go through a major disaster, it's still good to be prepared. The skills can be used in everyday life, Shechter said.

The volunteers were organized by Bill Hennings, a board member of The Villages Homeowners Association. Although the training prepares people to act quickly in an emergency, they also have to be aware of their own limitations.

Participants learn to evaluate how safe a structure might be, then decide when to stay out and when to enter, Hennings said.

"We don't want to become victims," he said. "We must do only what we're trained to do."

The Marion County Sheriff's Office has been training CERT volunteers since 1995 and currently has 680 active participants. A team from Marion County is conducting the first few sessions for The Villages until the Villages Fire-Rescue Service can take over the program. An $8,000 state grant received by the town of Lady Lake will help fund future programs.

The Villages will begin new classes at noon and 3 p.m. on Thursday. Marion County's next class starts on Sept. 11. Classes are 2 1/2 hours long, one day a week. Marion County sessions last 10 weeks and include CPR. The Villages will offer advanced medical training at a later date.

To sign up, contact The Villages Fire Rescue at (352) 753-4508 or the Marion County Sheriff's Office at (352) 732-8181.

Marian Rizzo covers south Marion, Lady Lake and The Villages. Contact her at or (352) 624-0868.