CERT volunteers activated during the Jan. 25 mudslide evacuation. Photo courtesy Cal Fire. 

Last week’s mudslide evacuation marked the first-ever activation of the Community Emergency Response Team as part of a new collaboration between the volunteer group and the San Mateo County’s Emergency Operations Center. 

During the evacuation warning issued on Jan. 25, CERT volunteers from across the Coastside provided on-the-ground communication for residents in the southern part of San Mateo County, the same area evacuated last summer during the August CZU Lightning Complex fires. 

Volunteers knocked on doors, posted flyers about the area’s mudslide risk and radioed in updates that worked their way up to the county’s emergency operations center in Redwood City. 

The recent involvement of CERT in the county’s emergency response stemmed from discussions last year between the two groups about leveraging the roster of volunteers in a more official capacity given their intimate knowledge of the area. 

In the past, CERT volunteers were trained and certified to help largely with search and rescue efforts. But after the CZU fire, the group believed it could contribute to prevention. CERT leaders also believed that should volunteers be deployed during an emergency they should receive insurance coverage often granted to sworn emergency workers. 

County emergency managers agreed.

Soon after the fire, the county and CERT planned a series of trainings that would allow CERT volunteers to provide on-the-ground alerts and warnings as early as this winter, when forecasters warned that CZU-burned areas would be susceptible to debris flow during a storm. 

“We started making these plans for the potential of winter storms and debris flow pretty much immediately after the fire started,” said Mike McKeon, district coordinator for the county Emergency Operations Center. 

Also, as part of the new partnership, the county authorized CERT leaders to swear in volunteers as Disaster Service Workers, an official designation that confers worker’s compensation coverage. On the day of the evacuation, 16 CERT team members and 12 radio operators — some of whom were among CERT’s ranks — were officially sworn in. 

According to the county’s revised emergency response plan, CERT volunteers would serve as channels of information, a role necessitated after the fires exposed gaps in the existing alert system, which failed to reach areas with no cellular service. 

“Out on the South Coast, like Gazos Creek Road and White House Canyon Road, there is no cellphone coverage. All the landlines have been destroyed by the fire. And basically when you get into trouble out there, it’s very difficult to get help,” said Ari Delay, chief of the La Honda Fire Brigade and manager of the South Coast CERT.

South Coast CERT volunteers, one of four CERT groups on the Coastside, comprised the primary response group for last week’s mudslide evacuation. Delay called in reinforcement after an estimate placed the number of residents that needed to be evacuated between 300 and 500. That need was filled by two CERT branches that cover the area from Devil’s Slide to Tunitas Creek, just south of Half Moon Bay, and that David Cosgrave, assistant chief for the Coastside Fire Protection District, oversees.  

Cosgrave attributed last week’s expedient response to South Coast CERT’s preemptive efforts. Ahead of the evacuation warning, Delay and his team scouted out the canyons, whose varied elevation carried heightened risk of debris flow. They mapped out what homes were there and tested their communications so that when the Jan. 25 evacuation came, they were ready.

“They had a network in place so that when I went down there and I was told I was going to be in charge of them, I just worked off the communication plan they had,” Cosgrave said. 

The volunteers fanned out in five groups, distributing leaflets to every home they came upon. During their mission, they encountered many residents who had already evacuated or were about to. They then returned to the base camp where they submitted their “214 forms,” an activity log created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and relayed any notable activity they saw. 

“The volunteers that went out door-to-door said that some people didn’t really know what a debris flow was, so the information that we pre-trained them with ws invaluable,” Cosgrave said. 

All volunteers were accounted for and no one was injured. 

Already the county and the CERT groups are working to improve their future response, including possible use of geospatial mapping tools that could help track which neighborhoods had been reached and where people chose to stay. 

“Having that all compiled in one source gives us better situational awareness going forward,” McKeon said. 

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