By Jillian Risberg
Denville’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is there for just about every town event, you’ll see them in their green shirts or jackets at parades, festivals, street fairs and more ensuring the health and safety of all involved.
If something happens — somebody falls and cuts themselves, they’ll notify first aid.
John Bartolotta, OEM deputy coordinator/CERT team coordinator and a couple of others are able to render immediate aid because they took an EMR (Emergency Medical Responder) course.
“They’re not a complete EMT but they put in 90 hours — and they can administer oxygen and some other things that they don’t teach you in basic first aid,” Bartolotta says. “I have four people registered; one EMT. So we usually deploy and we can pretty much handle most stuff until the squad arrives.”
In 2009, the director of OEM at that time decided to start this ‘Community Emergency Response (CERT) team. It became prevalent across the United States and all these teams started popping up everywhere.
According to Bartolotta, the CERT concept began in 1985 when the Los Angeles Fire Department recognized that in the early stages of a disaster (wildfires) basic training in disaster survival and rescue skills for local emergency responders would improve the ability of community members to survive until responders or other assistance arrived.
“We’re not trained fire fighters or police officers, we’re just trained in basic first aid, basic fire fighting — all we teach our people is how to use a basic fire extinguisher,” says the deputy. “Anything bigger than that, you leave it to the professionals.”
As far as police work, when they deploy to these events — they are just an extra set of eyes and ears.
They roam through the crowds and if they see something suspicious — or if something gets out of hand; they’ll notify their command post and the police department and have them respond.
“We’re not to take any actions or anything like that,” Bartolotta says.
The Deputy’s background as a former sergeant with the Essex County Sheriff’s Office for 26 years came in handy when he took over the CERT program.
“I just wanted to give back (to the town) and that seemed to fit,” Bartolotta says. “I was still on the job in 2009 when I joined CERT; didn’t retire ’til 2011. I brought my experience with me and I’m really into it. When Wes (Wesley Sharples) became the OEM director, he asked me to be the CERT coordinator and trainer; that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
With his love of volunteering Bartolotta is also on the fire department, where he drives the ambulance.
The CERT members don’t all live in Denville, but must live within a reasonable distance.
There are a couple of people from Rockaway borough because they don’t have a CERT team.
“We’ll address anyone who doesn’t have a CERT team, any town — otherwise we don’t like to step on toes and take from a town such as Parsippany, which is right next store to us,” Bartolotta says. “They have their own CERT team so if they talk to me, I’ll recommend them to Parsippany to join their team.”
“We will train them in what we call cribbing; light search and rescue; basic first aid, terrorism,” Bartolotta says.
They were deployed when Denville got slammed by flooding from Hurricane Irene (the costliest disaster in New Jersey’s history), mainly operating the command post as people were brought in on different vehicles.
They got them set up in shelters, and also operated a shelter at the Lakeview School.
And they were on scene when Hurricane Sandy struck.
“We set up a shelter at Morris Knolls High School and we had people staying over for a couple of days,” Bartolotta says. “That’s a big thing that we do — operate a shelter for a disaster such as that, people that had to evacuate their homes.”
They set up big cots, food brought in from either the American Red Cross or Salvation Army — they work in close proximity to them.
And when all the gas pumps were down they set up at what’s now the BP gas station assisting the town and the police department managing the lines.
“When the second storm hit, we didn’t actually get flooded but we had a lot of wind damage, trees down, power lines, power out. I deployed my men to a sandpile where we were allowing people to get sandbags,” Bartolotta says. “We were helping people fill sandbags and thank God nothing happened during that.”
When it comes to sheltering – Bartolotta says a lot of their people took the sheltering certification course from the Red Cross and are certified shelter operators.
According to the deputy, they frequently do damage assessment.
“We’ll go out and in an area that’s damaged we’ll assess the damage for FEMA,” Bartolotta says. “Irene, Sandy, those odd blizzards we had at two Halloweens in a row; we were out in that — those are really the biggest disasters since we’ve been around 10 years and that we’ve participated in.”
They are averaging about 30 events a year: food truck festivals, parades, street fairs, anything where their assistance can be an asset to the town.
“We are asked to help and we deploy our people along the way,” the deputy says.
“I really like Denville, I’ve been here 20 years,” he says. “I enjoy the challenge of doing things with the team. We just did an active shooter reunification drill with the PD; it was really exciting.”
He says his people have learned a lot about what to do and what not to do.
The CERT currently has 29 members and only two have a background in law enforcement, one is a retired police officer from Newark and the other is Bartolotta.
“We have people from all different backgrounds,” he says. “It’s not a necessity that you have a law enforcement or fire background. We give you the basic training that we want you to know and then we drill and keep training on all those things.”
According to the deputy, the age to join CERT is limitless.
“We never put anybody in harm’s way. If we have a deployment and I say I want you to go out and check these buildings and you say, John I’m not too happy with that — we’ll never make anybody do anything they don’t feel comfortable with. That’s how CERT works — and why we can have an 18-year-old or we can have an 80-year-old,” Bartolotta says.
There are some older people on the squad and some who do have some physical disabilities but they are still a help to the command post.
“They can answer phones, they can do paperwork, they can run paperwork,” the deputy says.
When it comes to recruitment, Bartolotta says a lot of people don’t know about the CERT.
“We’re starting to get a little bit more out there because of all these events we’re at,” he says. “We now set this big green tent up with the word ‘Community Emergency Response Team’ at the street fair and we have all kind of literature.”
Over the past three years where people saw the tent, they’ve gotten two or three recruits each time who’ve gone on to attend the class, so little by little they are building up.
“We only had about 18 people three years ago,” Bartolotta says. “We’ve picked up 11 people in those three years just by word of mouth and people coming and seeing us and asking what CERT is about. We’ll explain it to them.”
According to the deputy, people will even approach CERT members as they make their way through the event crowds to find out more about the organization.
“And they’ll tell ‘em — you think you might be interested in something like that,” he says.
If the person says they are, they take their name and contact information and when the next class comes up, Bartolotta usually reaches out to them.
“We joined up with Parsippany over the past few years, Eric Hubner is the director there, him and I have become good friends and we run the class together — the basic CERT training class, so we both get a lot of recruits out of that,” the deputy says.
And they help each other with events.
“They have a lot of big events where they need extra help. He (Hubner) will call on us,” Bartolotta says. “And we do the same with him. Matter of fact, he sent a group of his people to this (active shooter) reunification drill.”
Mountain Lakes is also now on board, according to the deputy.
“They have a small team, but again when they need help they’ll call us and Parsippany. If we need help we call them,” Bartolotta says.
The best part for Bartolotta is giving back and making a difference
“It’s a brotherhood, where one hand washes the other and we’re all under the Office of Emergency Management of the local town,” he says. “Then we report to the county OEM and also the state OEM (run by the New Jersey State Police).”