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 Sterling Heights Community Emergency Response Team coordinator Geoff Gariepy gets directions from Sterling Heights police Sgt. Aaron Susalla June 11.

Sterling Heights Community Emergency Response Team coordinator Geoff Gariepy gets directions from Sterling Heights police Sgt. Aaron Susalla June 11.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Even in a pandemic, CERT continues to help police

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published July 2, 2020

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STERLING HEIGHTS — In a typical year, Geoff Gariepy would be spending his time making plans as the Sterling Heights Community Emergency Response Team coordinator, in order to help the Sterlingfest Art and Music Fair run smoothly.

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s event cancellations,  including Sterlingfest, plus the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement’s protests, this is not a typical year.

“We have been called upon to act as eyes and ears during two demonstrations in Sterling Heights over the past month, wherein we were not in direct contact with the public but instead working in the background to make sure the police were kept aware of anything they weren’t able to see for themselves directly,” Gariepy said.

“We worked closely with another all-volunteer group in Sterling Heights called Citizens Patrol, which is also chartered and run by SHPD.”

Gariepy, of Sterling Heights, said he joined Sterling Heights CERT in March 2008. Today, as CERT’s coordinator, he said he is basically the team leader when the group operates, and he also communicates with Sterling Heights police staff, plans training sessions and does recruiting.

CERT, which is overseen by the SHPD, trains to assist police and other first responders when they’re busy handling a major event or crisis, and the team works to benefit public health and safety. Doing these kinds of tasks frees up resources for police and fire personnel to handle more specialized assignments.

“We roam through the crowd, assisting people finding lost children, giving directions and reporting any potential criminal activity,” Gariepy said. “We have also maintained the safe perimeter around the fireworks displays that took place over the past two years in Dodge Park.”

One of CERT’s chief purposes is disaster response, and it is sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. CERT teaches residents how to be prepared for community emergencies and disasters and how to address them. Through training, members learn how to suppress fires, apply first aid, do search-and-rescue missions and prepare for emergencies.

Gariepy said CERT was deployed during the major August flood from several years ago and the March 2017 windstorm.

“Our main mission is to back up the professional first responders when things go really badly, usually via a natural disaster,” he said. “When disaster strikes, the police and firefighters quickly become fully tasked. Mutual aid from other cities is not always available. In cases such as this, we are called in to handle things that the professional first responders can safely turn over to a trained civilian.  

“Were a tornado to strike our city, we would be part of the damage assessment group, for example.”

When things are calm, CERT assists the public during events such as Sterlingfest, the Sterling Frights Halloween event and A Sterling Christmas, he added.

In order to join CERT, members must be adults who can pass a criminal background check and have the vitality and time availability for the training and other meetings. The training costs nothing for residents and people who work or run a business in the city.

Gariepy said the group currently has about 28 active members. He said that while the size is adequate, he’d like to see even more growth, setting a goal of full emergency response potential at around 40-50 members.

“At any given moment, I can send out the call for an emergency and will expect about 20%-30% of our members to drop everything and show up,” he said. I think that percentage will roughly hold at the same level as the group grows, so our goal is to add more people to make our numbers bigger for any given emergency.”

According to Gariepy, CERT is rewarding to be a part of because it gives back to the community in a meaningful way — helping prevent property damage and deaths. And it means getting to work with professional first responders and getting “a subset of the same training they receive on the job,” he said.

During a time of intensified scrutiny on law enforcement, Gariepy said “good community policing starts with good relations” — including direct personal relationships — between police officers and residents.

He added that the CERT team has a diverse membership, both ethnically and age-wise, and he said the group helps “represent the public face of our city’s professional first responders.”

“Although we do not serve in a law enforcement capacity, we certainly are ambassadors between residents and law enforcement in the activities we perform,” he said, “and our goal is always to be good ambassadors by representing the positive, helpful nature of law enforcement’s impact on the community.”

When asked about CERT, Sterling Heights Fire Chief Chris Martin said he recalls how volunteers helped with traffic control at intersections after the major flooding took place.  

“Anytime there is a local disaster, all first responders get inundated with work,” he said. “They (CERT) are an extension of people we can rely on ... to mitigate problems we have in front of us. … In the windstorm, we used them to stand by for wires down, to keep people away from wires.”

Sterling Heights police Sgt. Aaron Susalla also recalled how the police called on CERT to monitor downed power lines after the 2017 windstorm, when first responders had to be elsewhere. He added that police use CERT to be the “eyes and ears” at city events ranging from festivals to recent political protests.

“Anytime they have to utilize their first-aid skills, they’d be able to do that, as well,” Susalla said.

Find out more about the Sterling Heights CERT program by visiting www.sterling-heights.net.

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