LUMBERTON — Longtime residents of Lumberton’s Godwin Heights area Betty Britt, Faye Blackmon and John Blackmon know their neighbors well.
Now, as members of the newly formed Godwin Heights Community Emergency Response Team, they can put all they know about their close-knit community to use saving lives.
“A lot of people call it being nosy,” said John Maree, the team’s leader. “It’s not really, we’re just trying to help out.”
On Monday at the Lumberton Rescue and Emergency Medical Services building on Roberts Avenue, the 11 volunteers, including Maree, capped off three months of training to be able to assist first responders. Although the concept was developed in 1985 by the Los Angeles City Fire Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began training residents, who now serve 28 states, in 1993 to be able to lend a hand in their own communities during an emergency.
The Godwin Heights team is one of two teams in the county. The other was formed in The Oaks neighborhood in 2011 and operates under the direction of the Lumberton Fire Department.
Training for two hours every two weeks since April has brought the Godwin Heights team, which spans the spectrum of age and experience, closer together.
“It doesn’t matter what age, everybody needs to know how to be safe. Everybody can do a little bit,” said Mattie Caulder, assistant director of Emergency Services for the county. Several CERT members said they would recommend the experience to anyone.
“As far as what I’ve enjoyed, we got a chance to be with each other,” said Britt, who is 80 years old. ” … The thing that really impresses me is that we can do something to help.”
According to Maree, CERT members’ knowledge of who lives alone, who needs help getting around, and who requires medical treatment like dialysis is invaluable. During disasters, members go door to door to check on residents and the damage done to the area, relaying what they see to emergency responders en route.
“Especially in a close-knit community like Godwin Heights … they’re actually boots on the ground for us in that inner perimeter before we can get in,” said Robert Ivey, the commander of Lumberton Rescue and Emergency Medical Services who helped train the group and would dispatch them in an emergency.
Each member of the team completed 12 training modules, covering fire prevention, psychology of terrorist events, light search and rescue, first aid and disaster response. Their training culminated on July 1 with a mock disaster, during which junior members of the Lumberton rescue squad posed as victims of a staged super storm.
“It was kind of everything mixed together. We had a little house and a bunch of people from here had various injuries — some had broken legs, some had broken arms, a couple of them were dead … We didn’t know what was in there,” said Brandon Anderson, a member of CERT and a military police officer.
The program was part of Councilman Burnis Wilkins’ campaign pledge to boost safety in Precinct 3 while running for City Council.
“Our team is going to be an active team … We are going to receive training in this and we’re going to be close and tight with you all. We’re going to be part of this rescue unit,” he said. Wilkins, a longtime member of the rescue squad, and his fiancee also trained to join CERT.
Wilkins plans to hold another training session early in 2015.
City Manager Wayne Horne spoke before the graduates on Monday, recalling the deadly tornadoes that struck Robeson County in 1984 — and underscoring the importance of the team.
“The bottom line is, the training you have offered these folks will give them a step up, an opportunity to prepare when these types of events happen,” Horne said. “Hopefully it won’t happen. We didn’t think it would happen in Red Springs.”
Caulder envisions each municipality having a team, particularly the more rural parts of the county, where it could take longer for help to arrive.
“Even though it’s in Lumberton city, we still can use this team. We try to do exercises three times a year, we can involve the CERT in that,” she said. “To me Lumberton city, any other municipality, I call them county, because we’re all working towards the same goal.”