Dummy awaits the rescue that will mark the final stage of NERT training.

En Español

“Where does the paper actually go?” the woman asks. “I mean, I’m used to e-mail, things like that.”

The time has come to explain how cross-city communication happens when wireless networks go down. “The ham radio operator reads over the radio to another operator on the other side of town,” says fire battalion chief Denise. “And that operator writes it down. Then someone else figures out how to get it to the right person.”

“So the original paper doesn’t actually go anywhere.”


“The scarcest resource in any disaster is INFORMATION,” reads the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team student training manual.

“If you didn’t write it down, IT DIDN’T HAPPEN.” To that end, the class is being instructed in the art of NERT forms: for messages, damage assessments, incident status records, unit logs and personnel resources.

Paperwork! Audible sighs are heard. But as incoming messages appear (fire reported at a home on the corner of Buchanan and Hermann; elderly neighbor at Hayes and Scott offers supplies) and groups fan out to investigate, paperwork begins to make sense — as long as you aren’t the person aggregating it. “Anyone who wants this job is welcome to it,” mutters a woman glumly marking boxes on a clipboard.

There is also a brief rundown of what to do in case of a chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear attack: Spot risks by looking for dead animals or suspicious smoke; cut off your clothes with scissors and shower in cold water; seal off the designated safe room in your house, using duct tape and the plastic you have previously cut to fit over the windows and doors.

It seems dreamlike and unreal and antisocial compared to every other kind of NERT training. “If there’s a terrorist attack,” says Newman, “run. It’s not a crime. Run.”

Mostly, the final two NERT classes are to walk trainees through what to do in a disaster, so that when the time comes they will do it by rote. To that end, gas meters are turned off. Pretend victims are bloodied, then triaged. Fires are extinguished.

“Doesn’t it seem silly to have an acronym for something as simple as using a fire extinguisher?” asks a fireman using a road flare to ignite a pool of diesel fuel as trainees await their turn to put it out. “But we come to ordinary household fires all the time and find fire extinguishers like these discarded, half-full, while the fire blazes away. People forget to pull the pin out, and it gets all crunched and bent inside there.”

“Why do we check someone’s vital signs before pulling them out of rubble?” another firefighter asks as a group gathers around a plastic dummy buried under a pile of boards. “Because we don’t want to rescue a deceased person. We’re not a body recovery team.”

A middle-aged Asian woman kneels down and tilts back the dummy’s rubber head the way we’ve all been taught. She does this twice, then looks up. “She’s breathing,” she says.

A group begins taking the boards off the dummy and stacking them in a tidy, jenga-like formation (known as “cribbing”) so that the heavy board pinning it can be lifted and the dummy slipped out. The fireman steps onto the board, now supported at an angle by the neatly stacked grid of wood. He jumps up and down on it a few times, experimentally. “Nice job,” he says.

“Now that they’re free,” he continues, “you have the ‘magic hour’ to get them treated. Have your blanket, backboard, chair, whatever ready before you move the body, so you can get them back to the triage area.”

He pauses. “They often die soon after you rescue them. It’s not your fault. It just happens — the effect of all that compression being removed. It’s still better to be rescued than trapped under all that rubble.”

He steps off the raised plank, and the team gathers up the wood and stacks it into a milk crate. Another trainee folds the dummy and places it into its plastic trunk. The fireman watches, still thoughtful.

“Be sure to come up with a safety word, in case you need to leave the building in a hurry,” another fireman says to the triage team. “Who’s in charge of security?”

A stocky man in a polo shirt raises his hand. “Our safety word is “Run!” he says. The group manages to triage everyone correctly except for one man, who was listed as needing immediate attention. “Why did you do that?” the fireman asks, once it is established that the man is able to respond to simple voice commands and has a normal rate of respiration and blood flow.

“Because he has a huge piece of glass in his forehead!” the trainee says indignantly, pointing in the victim’s direction. He does, indeed, appear to have a huge piece of glass buried in his forehead.

“Don’t let that distract you,” the fireman says. “Do not let appearances distract you! Now, you also missed something. What did you miss?”

“The hands?” someone asks, pointing to a set of plaster hands poking out from a corner.

“And what do the hands mean?”

“That someone is running around without any hands?”

“That’s right,” says the firefighter. “Someone nearby has a very serious injury. Make a note of that.” The team’s notetaker writes down “Missing hands.”

“Do we take the hands with us?” someone asks.

“Not unless we find the person they go to. In a big disaster, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to be reattaching body parts anyway.” The group seems subdued at this news.

Thinking about practical as opposed to fictional disasters brings with it a certain measure of seriousness. Relieved to have handled ourselves well, we abandon safety procedures and wander, incautiously and not in formation, toward the celebratory cake and hard hats awaiting us in the next room.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. ^^ SFPD does not sponsor NERT, rather it’s SFFD (the Fire Department).

    Anyway, I too am concerned that police will simply secure perimeters. 9/11 in NYC showed police and firemen having confrontations, so I’m sure the SFPD would not care if you had a NERT badge (many likely don’t even know what a NERT is).

    That said, the NERT training is great, it cannot be duplicated online, and everyone should take it: Even if you don’t plan on being a neighborhhod volunteer later, this is the best training available for you to help yourself and your family. One thing’s for sure, you WILL be on your own.

  2. No online training can replicate the hands-on training exercises at the NERT classes. NERT is a very worthwhile program. I learned a lot and gained a new appreciation for the SFPD, which sponsors NERT. Do yourself a favor and participate in this fine program. It’s FREE.

  3. It seems silly for every town to have it’s own name, and colored hats and vests for those few people who sign up as local emergency volunteers. I think it makes more
    sense to have a national system where we can register, train online, and be certified as card carrying trained safety helpers. Ironically, when disaster strikes, sometimes
    those who are able and willing to help, are
    not allowed back into their own neighborhood
    by police who aren’t doing anything but securing a perimeter.