University of FloridaSolutions for Your Life

Download PDF
Publication #FCS9255

Effective Community Response to Disaster: Exploring the Role of Community Emergency Response Teams 1

Mark Brennan, Randall Cantrell, Michael Spranger, and Muthusami Kumaran 2

This paper is part of a series of discussions on the impact of community action in response to natural and other disasters.


Communities are vulnerable to natural and other hazards. Hurricanes, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, are certainly not new, and they are not the only hazard facing the communities along the Gulf Coast of the United States. The human-caused Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 was an unanticipated hazard that impacted many communities throughout the Gulf of Mexico. But natural hazards, such as hurricanes and tropical storms, bring into focus the constant reality that community residents are often the front line of disaster response. While both urban and rural communities find themselves grappling with inexplicable turmoil in the midst and wake of these disasters, rural communities are often at the periphery of the media’s focus and large-scale emergency response. This reality is linked to a larger trend: Rural communities increasingly find themselves shouldering responsibility for meeting the emergency needs of local residents.

Community-Based Emergency Response Teams

A relatively new approach to local involvement in disaster response is emerging across communities in the United States. The Community Emergency-Response Team (CERT) program seeks to train and empower local community residents to shoulder the responsibility of being first responders to emergencies. The CERT concept was first developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department in 1985, and this concept of locally trained citizens quickly spread throughout the United States. CERTs, which are administered by Citizen Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the Department of Homeland Security, blend a bottom-up appreciation for the role of local volunteers in emergency response with a top-down institutional framework to facilitate training and coordination. Today, there are more than 2,200 registered CERTs in the United States; Florida alone has 116 CERTs (FEMA, 2013).

There is much promise in the CERT program as a strategy for local empowerment and effective disaster response in rural communities. To be effective, however, the CERT program needs to adapt to different levels of local capacity and broadly represent the community it is intended to protect and serve. It is also possible that by developing local capacity for disaster response, CERT teams may be able to expand their applicability to non-disaster, community-development activities.

While CERTs have predominantly focused on disaster preparedness and recovery, this does not necessarily need to be the case. CERTs provide a framework for convening localities to prepare in times of need. This process of building community and response structures applies beyond the context of disasters. In rural communities with high disaster-response capacity, established networks, infrastructures, and alliances likely already exist, and they allow a community to plan for its needs and build on its strengths to achieve desired goals. Such capacity for providing these community services does not always exist, but it can be cultivated, encouraged, and empowered. Cooperative Extension and other change agents can play a leading role in this process. Where capacity for community involvement in disaster response or broader development is lower, CERT programs provide a potential framework for both.

Including Everyone in Community Responses to Disaster

A critical aspect of CERT effectiveness and potential for expanding into community development or other roles is representing the entire local population. Convening diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and other groups provides a host of resources and experiences, but more importantly it provides transparency in the local decision-making process. In all communities, a variety of groups exist with diverse skills and abilities, combined with personal and professional experiences that are essential to successful preparation and response to disasters (Independent Sector, 2001). Included are residents with needed professional and trade skills for damage control and assessment (engineers, environmental scientists, architects, contractors, and skilled laborers); disaster preparedness and response training (VFW, retired military/national guard/police); medical, psychological, and social service delivery experience (health practitioners, counselors, and religious/civic groups); and longtime residents who have witnessed previous responses to natural disasters.

Such groups and individuals are also directly suited to local empowerment and community development that serves to enhance rural well-being. Effective community response to disaster and other local needs connects diverse groups within the locality. Successfully linking local organizations, citizens, and leaders provides a network and a method for local citizens and groups to become actively involved in local preparedness, in response efforts, and beyond. Individuals currently involved in CERTs are also likely to provide strong personal and professional connections, which can link local interests to state/federal agencies and other outside entities. Such connections and partnerships can facilitate access to information, resources, training, and finances necessary to build local capacities.

In this way, CERTs can act as bridges between local and extra-local resources, not only to prepare and respond to disaster, but also to directly shape rural well-being as part of rural development efforts. Since rural communities are often situated in a unique interface between the physical environment and society, local residents are important to the management of natural resources. CERTs can provide the human resources, initiative, and framework for gathering and disseminating information important to environmental decision-making. Such effort is not far removed from disaster preparedness efforts.

Linking local land use and natural-resource management with risk mitigation and disaster preparedness weaves together an integrated approach to protecting ecological and human well-being. A model of expanding the traditional role of CERTs can be found in Alachua County, Florida, where local CERT volunteers were involved in surveying local farmers about drought protection practices and other natural-resource management efforts. Building relationships in quiet times creates a valuable network and sense of community to tap into in times of emergency or disaster.


CERTs can provide a variety of services, increase local capacities for responding to disaster, and conceivably a lot more. Part of this effort will involve a reconsideration of how we view disasters. Emergencies and disasters take many forms in different regions throughout the United States. Hurricanes and flooding are recurring themes in the U.S. Gulf States. Human-caused disasters, such as the Deep Horizon oil spill, can also have major and unanticipated community impacts. The threat of terrorism is also a primary concern for local community preparedness and security efforts. However, disasters in the form of rapid economic decline (e.g., loss of farming, mining, forestry, and manufacturing jobs) and environmental change (e.g., drought and forest disturbance) have equally detrimental impacts on rural quality of life and well-being. CERT programs present the potential to help communities respond to nontraditional disasters and to directly shape local capacity for rural development. Recent disasters in the southeast U.S. highlight what has been suspected by experts—local residents will be first responders and likely on their own for days or weeks. In the event of nontraditional and economic disasters, the process may last years or longer.

References and Suggested Reading

Berke, P., J. Kartez, and D. Wenger. (1993). Recovery after Disaster: Achieving Sustainable Development, Mitigation and Equity. Disasters 17(2): 93-109.Brennan, M.A., C. Flint, and R. Barnett. (2005). Community Volunteers: The Front Line of Disaster Response. Journal of Volunteer Administration. 23(4): 52-56.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2013). The Community Emergency Response Team.

Flint, C. and M.A. Brennan. (2006). The Rural Context of Disaster: Exploring the Role of Community Emergency Response Teams. Rural Realities. Independent Sector. (2001). Giving and Volunteering in the United States. Washington, DC: Independent Sector.

Onstad, P., Danes, S., Hardman, A., Olson, P., Marczak, K., Heins, R., Cronmans, S., and Coffee, K. (2012). “The Road to Recovery from a Natural Disaster:Voices from the Community.” Community Development:Journal of the Community Development Society. 43(5): 566-580.

Useful Web Sites

  1. Florida CERT programs,

  2. Alachua County, FL CERT program,

  3. US Citizen Corps,

  4. Community Emergency Response Team (CERT),

  5. National Citizen Corps Council Partners,

  6. Corporation for National and Community Service,

  7. US Citizen Fire Corps,

  8. US On Watch Neighborhood Watch Program,

  9. Medical Reserves Corps,

  10. Citizen Corps Affiliate Programs and Organizations,



This document is FCS9255, one of a series of the Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date July 2006. Revised January 2014. Reviewed January 2014. Visit the EDIS website at


Mark A. Brennan, PhD, former faculty member, assistant professor; Randall Cantrell, PhD, assistant professor; Michael S. Spranger, PhD, professor; and Muthusami Kumaran, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.