Volume 17 • Issue 19 | October 01 - 07, 2004

Downtown Express photo by Jennifer Bodrow

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney spoke about the need for more money to help form community emergency response teams.

Downtowners look for money for emergency teams

By Alison Gregor

Federal funding earmarked for Community Emergency Response Teams after Sept. 11 is not finding its way from the state to the neighborhoods it was intended to help, officials said Monday.

And when it does finally arrive in New York City, the funding is being mismanaged due to a lack of oversight of the Community Emergency Response Team program, they said.

New York State received $2.1 million in 2003 and 2004, but only 13 of the neighborhood response teams, called CERTs, existed statewide as of last April, according to data provided by U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney(D-NY).

In contrast, Massachusetts received $930,000, and it had set up 102 CERTs.

“We are terrorist target number one, and to only have 13 CERTs, we’re really not giving this program the just direction it deserves,” Maloney told about 70 people gathered in Tribeca at New York Law School for a program sponsored by the Downtown Independent Democrats and Community Boards 1, 2 and 3.

If the $2.1 million had been fully spent to create the 13 CERTs, the cost of creating a team in New York State would have been about $162,000, the data showed. In Massachusetts, the cost is about $9,000.

Even though the figures to train a CERT are actually more like $12,000 per team, officials said the teams could be trained more cheaply.

Jean Grillo, a Democratic District Leader and an organizer of the event, said about 35 people at the meeting signed up to become part of CERT teams — groups of volunteers who receive training in an assortment of emergency preparedness skills with the aim of supporting primary responders in an emergency situation.

Two program directors of CERTs that pre-dated government involvement said their teams have received relatively little government assistance.

Sid Baumgarten, a founding member of the second-oldest CERT in New York, begun in Battery Park City in June 2003, said the only government assistance his team has received is 100 disaster kits – priced at $35 each and some with substandard goggles and equipment.

“So the extent of the commitment from the city of New York, the Office of Emergency Management, is $3,500,” Baumgarten said.

“I was home on 9/11 when the towers fell, and I can assure you that all of the first responders were across the street at ground zero, and nobody was concerned with the [thousands of] people in Battery Park City and where they should go,” he said.

Baumgarten said the idea of CERTs originated after a 1985 California earthquake “when they found the police and fire personnel could not get into the area. And that’s when it’s important to have civilians who are trained in some of these disciplines — until the first responders can arrive…and once they arrive, you’re there to augment and help.”

Scott Caruthers, C.E.O./training officer of a CERT in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the first CERT formed in the city, said his team’s costs for everything, including training and equipment, have been about $12,000 over the past three years. His team, as well, has received only disaster kits from the government.

Maloney said of the $2.1 million CERT money received by the state, New York City received only $186,000. That means $1.9 million went to the rest of the state, highlighting another problem with the $21 million federal program: inequity in funding formulas, Maloney said.

Those inequities also exist on a federal level.

When it comes to funds to combat terrorism in high-risk areas, “Wyoming, which has more buffalo than people, gets roughly $40 per person, while New York gets roughly $5,” Maloney said.

Caruthers said one reason that New York City is being shortchanged is the lack of organization of its Citizen Corps Council, a body created to lobby for funds for programs like the CERTs, of which he is a member.

“You should be really pissed off about how little action has been taken on your part,” he told the audience. “There is an appalling lack of awareness, commitment, activity on behalf of our elected officials.”

He called for the formation of a Citizen Corps Council in every borough. Caruthers said elected officials also have discretionary funds available to help fund CERTs, though to date, none have allocated funds to do so.

The $186,000 the city did receive in 2003 and 2004 is being used by its Office of Emergency Management to train 15 CERTs, not including Bay Ridge and Battery Park City, Caruthers said. That comes to a little more than $12,000 per team.

Caruthers maintained the teams could be trained much more cheaply.

“The problem with the funding is [O.E.M.] is paying firemen and policemen $45 to $75 per hour in overtime to come do this training,” he said.

Both Caruthers and Baumgarten approached local volunteer ambulance corps, firehouses, the Red Cross and American Heart Association and other organizations to find certified trainers who would volunteer their time.

Maloney agreed that the CERT costs were too high.

“I don’t understand why a program that’s made up of volunteers is costing so much,” she said, calling for Federal Emergency Management Agency oversight into how the funding is spent.

Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields said the cost of training CERTs should be reduced once the number of teams has doubled.

“The goal now is to have at least one CERT in each of the 59 community boards by the end of 2006,” she said. “One of the things this group…should advocate for…is to speed up that process.”

A spokesperson from the Office of Emergency Management said the agency is on schedule to have a CERT in every community board in the city by spring 2006.

An allocation of $500,000 would cover the costs of training all those CERTs, Fields said. On a national level, she said she is fighting to have the federal funds come directly to the neighborhoods instead of passing through the state first.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency first began promoting the concept in 1994, but after Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government allocated $21 million for the creation of CERTs nationwide.

Generally, CERTs members will assist police and fire fighters by holding the perimeter at an emergency scene, freeing up first responders to do their jobs, Caruthers said.

There has been no shortage of people willing to volunteer for CERT training, said Grillo, the district leader.

“We have the people,” she said. “Right after Sept. 11, there were thousands of people who were willing to volunteer. What we need is the money already sitting in Albany to fund CERTs.”

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