Rift between B.P.C. C.E.R.T. and city

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  When Mayor Bloomberg ordered a mandatory evacuation of Battery Park City and parts of Tribeca in anticipation of Hurricane Irene, members of Tribeca’s Community Emergency Response Team pulled 24-hour shifts to assist local residents.

The Battery Park City C.E.R.T. members, however, were nowhere to be seen.

Sid Baumgarten, the B.P.C. C.E.R.T. chief, said he decided to disband the volunteers the weekend of the hurricane after various city agencies informed him in a meeting that they had no intention of deploying the team in the event of an emergency.

Baumgarten said he was dissatisfied with the city’s response.

“They could have said, ‘fine, we can use you to do A, B and C,’” said Baumgarten. “Instead, they came back to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t use you. You’re not credentialed.’ It’s absurd — this is our area here.”

According to the NYC Office of Emergency Management, the B.P.C. group is not officially a C.E.R.T. team, since its members haven’t received the necessary training.

“Over the course of the years, we’ve undergone numerous efforts to try to incorporate them into the C.E.R.T. program, and they’ve chosen not to join,” said O.E.M. Press Secretary Chris Gilbride. “We recognize they have value to add, and we want them to be a part of the program. But at this point, they haven’t met the requirements to be certified.”

In the mid-2000s, Baumgarten and other B.P.C. volunteers submitted applications to become certified, but the process was never completed.

Baumgarten and other volunteers allege that O.E.M. lost their applications, but one O.E.M. official denied this claim. “I have them — they were shown to me 10 minutes ago,” said Deputy Press Secretary Seth Andrews on Friday, Oct. 7.

The B.P.C. C.E.R.T. members that were certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the early 2000s had the chance to be grandfathered into O.E.M.’s program, which launched in 2004, but that never happened, according to Herman Schaffer, director of community outreach at O.E.M.

“I’m not exactly sure what happened with that, but it’s my understanding that at some point in time, they weren’t necessarily thrilled with having so much oversight [by] us, since they were used to working under their own auspices,” said Schaffer.

Now, Schaffer said, it’s too late for the B.P.C. volunteers to be grandfathered into the system, so O.E.M. is requiring that they undergo the agency’s 30-hour training session and update their contact and other personal information from the previous applications.

Baumgarten, however, contends that the volunteers who were previously trained and certified by F.E.M.A. should be automatically certified by O.E.M.

“We’re anxious to be part of the program — but when you’re told you can’t certify people if they don’t train them, it makes no sense to me,” Baumgarten said. “The concept of community emergency response is that you train people to respond within the community. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether O.E.M., the Fire Department or the Police Department says, ‘activate.’”

“These are not green recruits — they’ve already gone through F.E.M.A. training,” echoed Jean Grillo, who leads the Tribeca C.E.R.T. team.  “I think they should be immediately recertified and work out the retraining [after]. I’m very concerned that we have millions of people coming Downtown in the next year, and that the Tribeca and B.P.C. C.E.R.T.s need to work together.”

Baumgarten believes members that are F.E.M.A.-certified shouldn’t need retraining.

“Sixty-seven people were trained by 2003, and that was before O.E.M. was training anybody,” Baumgarten said.

He and the other volunteers, Baumgarten noted, received additional training at prestigious agencies such as the Connecticut Fire Academy and were taught fire suppression tactics by the New York State Fire Academy. The volunteers that aren’t F.E.M.A.-certified, Baumgarten said, would be willing to take the O.E.M. class — so long as the group’s experienced volunteers can pitch in their expertise.

However, Schaffer from O.E.M. insisted that, in order for the team to be certified, all of the volunteers would have to be trained by O.E.M. staff. The current training lasts 10 weeks and teaches volunteers about disaster medical operations, police science, traffic control and fire safety.

“The program has changed significantly, and to have them join us from the program six years ago isn’t fair to our current membership,” said Schaffer. “They should see this as an opportunity to get extra training, not as something that is penalizing them.”

Grillo said she hopes a compromise can be worked out.

“I think at some point,” said Grillo, “O.E.M. has got to understand that it makes no sense to not try to find a middle ground.”