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Modern-day Minutemen prepare for the worst

If you ever spot Larry Dahl Jr. sporting a neon yellow vest, it'll be too late. Something horrific just happened.

Dahl and 11 other men and women will be receiving their vests in the coming weeks after graduating Thursday night from the second class of the New Tampa Community Emergency Response Team _ the only team so far in Hillsborough County.

They'll also be getting helmets, backpacks, flashlights and other equipment the volunteers can use in a disaster's aftermath. That and 24 hours of training by Tampa Fire-Rescue are what emergency response officials hope have prepared them for the worst.

"I definitely learned a lot," said Dahl, a regional sales manager for Alliance Medical who moved to West Meadows six months ago. "Hopefully, if we are needed, the situation won't be so catastrophic. There's not going to be much we'll be able to do if we're attacked."

Despite Dahl's doubts that his CERT training has prepared him for a terrorist strike, he says he joined partly because of Sept. 11. That's also the main reason why CERT teams, modern-day versions of Minutemen, are popping up all around Florida and the nation, said Thomas Weaver, a CERT program analyst with the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

"It's really mushroomed the last two years," Weaver said. "Much of that is Sept. 11."

About 8,000 people in Florida are active CERT members, he said. About 75 separate programs, the most in the country, have been established in more than 30 counties. Just last year, 3,100 people became CERT members. Another 3,000 are expected this year.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is now under the new Homeland Security Department, administers much of the money that pays for CERT. It spent $37-million on CERT programs the last two years, according to a FEMA spokeswoman. The rest of CERT money comes from donations or state and local grants. The goal: to have 600,000 people trained by CERT. There are now 200,000.

CERT wasn't always about terrorism. In the 24 hours of training required to become members, only three hours are devoted to terrorism. Most of the training is on fire suppression, medical triage, search and rescue tips and disaster relief.

The program was started in 1985 by the Los Angeles Fire Department to provide relief quickly after earthquakes. By the early 1990s, FEMA was so impressed that it adopted CERT to help deal with natural disasters throughout the country.

Hurricane Andrew, Central Florida tornadoes and the 1998 wildfires were all crises that helped make it more popular here than any other state, Weaver said. It is in those minutes, hours or even days before professional rescue workers can get to the scene that CERT volunteers are needed most, he said.

"CERT's job is to be there and provide organizational structure until the first respondents get there," Weaver said. "They help give neighborhoods the capabilities to handle the worst."

Don Nevins of Pebble Creek and four others started CERT last year in New Tampa, partly because they feared that the area is vulnerable to a natural or manmade disaster.

"Traffic is such that if there's an emergency out here, we're in trouble," Nevins said. "With those roads, emergency personnel will have trouble getting out here."

Nevins was among 15 last year who graduated from CERT and have remained in New Tampa. By the next few years, Nevins said he wants 200 CERT members for all of New Tampa. CERT meets the first Thursday of every month in the community room of the New Tampa Regional Library on Cross Creek Boulevard at 7 p.m. The next class already has 17 members.

Although the mood was light during Thursday's graduation, it was far from celebratory. As the new graduates accepted their certificates, President George Bush was on television outlining his reasons to go to war against Iraq.

"We know times are going to get tough," charter member Dave Newsom told the class. "We just want to be as prepared as possible."

_ Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or mvansicklersptimes.com

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