Salem’s volunteer disaster response team to begin training this month

Terry Pickett knows how to prepare for the worst.

He is the chief instructor for Salem’s Community Emergency Response Team, also known as CERT. The team of volunteers trains to be able to jump into action if the city faces a major disaster. 

The national program is intended to beef up disaster relief when an event is too significant for local emergency responders to handle on their own. 

The Salem team’s top concern is the eventual Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. “It may not be for another 500 years, who knows. It might be tomorrow. We have no way of knowing,” Pickett said.

Pickett, 66, trains volunteers in a wide range of emergency responses from medical aid, such as bandaging and splinting, to terrorism.

The next round of training will take place Feb. 22 to March 28. Pre-registration is required and available until 5 p.m. on Feb. 16. The class is free and held quarterly.

The training includes fire suppression, which gives volunteers a chance to use a fire extinguisher. 

“We set stuff on fire and they put it out,” Pickett said.

He said they also pick one “lucky volunteer” to strap down to a backboard. They then practice carrying the person through a doorway, out of a ground floor window and through a staircase. 

Terry Picket is the chief instructor for Salem’s CERT program (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Pickett’s full-time job for around 40 years has been supplying parts for heavy duty trucks. He currently works the parts counter at FleetPride in Salem.

He took his first CERT class in 2008, five years after his first wife died. “I was not doing an awful lot – go to work, come home, take care of the dogs, that was just kind of my life,” he said. 

A friend of Pickett’s who wanted to get him out of the house asked if they could attend together.

Pickett continued going back. Every time there was a class, he showed up. “The longer I was with it, the more important I felt that it was,” he said.

“I was their crash test dummy. When they were doing a demonstration, like the backboard or if they were doing a head-to-toe assessment of somebody, I would be the one that they would do it on,” he said.

Other members began recognizing him on sight. Eventually, everybody knew his name.

“I didn’t understand or even know that there was something missing out of my life – aside from the fact that my wife wasn’t with me anymore – but that was volunteer service,” he said. “Once I started doing it, I thought, ‘This is actually really good.’ And I didn’t know that I was missing out on it until I did it.”

Within two years, Pickett approached Roger Stevenson, then Salem’s emergency manager, with an idea. “I think I want to teach this,” he recalled saying.

Pickett became certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which allowed him to teach CERT anywhere in the U.S. He started teaching individual course chapters in 2010.

“Admittedly, when I first started, being up in front of the crowd was not a super easy thing for me,” he said. “Now, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m used to it.”

By 2014, he was teaching the class by himself. “Everybody says they’re not going to let me retire,” he said, laughing.

Pickett has since remained the chief instructor. 

He did once promote himself. When it came time for a disaster drill, he pinned three stars onto his green raincoat with shoulder boards and wore it to class.

“That final exercise, I introduced myself as General Chaos,” he said.

The fall 2023 class of Salem volunteers conduct training to join CERT (City of Salem)

The course covers both how to be a volunteer first responder and how to personally prepare for a disastrous event. 

Pickett said it’s “dismal” how few people across the U.S. are prepared to stand alone during a natural disaster without needing to go to the store.

He said it could take at least two weeks for Salem to get outside help after the Cascadia earthquake. The runway at the Salem Municipal Airport was built in the 1940s for World War II and sits on a dry lake bed. 

“The ground underneath it is not real stable, and so they don’t anticipate that the airport will be open for business after the earthquake,” he said. 

That’s why CERT trains people to stock up on enough food, water, medical supplies and any prescription medications they need to be able to stand on their own without having to leave home. “The longer, the better,” he said.

CERT courses cover the same curriculum across the country, but local teams focus on preparing for disasters they are more at risk for. In some areas, that means hurricanes or tornadoes. 

It’s rare for Salem to face a disastrous event that professional first responders can’t take on themselves. 

Pickett said CERT has not responded to any of Salem’s ice storms in recent years.

The last time the team was deployed was during the 2017 solar eclipse, when police were concerned about bad actors exploiting the large crowds gathering. They were issued radios and acted as “an extra set of eyes and ears in case there was any trouble,” according to Pickett.

“We don’t get an awful lot of practice other than the stuff we do ourselves,” he said.

Salem’s CERT has trained between 2,500 and 2,800 people since 2003. But Pickett said maybe 1% of those people are still living in the area, actively involved or even still alive. 

“We find that the people who take the class tend to be older than the ones who don’t. We have a very small percentage of younger people who take the class versus people who are in their mid-40s and up,” he said.

In the past, Pickett said they’ve allowed people to join the program if they don’t live in Salem but spend a significant portion of their day in the city.

He also said they let people take the class just to learn how to be prepared, even if they choose not to be a CERT member.

“The fewer people that I have to come rescue, the better off we are,” he said.

Salem’s first CERT class since the pandemic graduated this past November. 

People can sign up for training by contacting Salem’s Emergency Manager Joe Hutchinson at  503-991-6918 or [email protected].

There are seven courses, each three hours. Class size is limited and volunteers must register ahead of time. 

People can also learn more by visiting the Surviving Cascadia website or the Salem CERT Facebook page.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.