Johns Creek putting HEAT on neighborhoods

Civilian response teams help fire units in emergencies



JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – What can homeowners do in an emergency in a major emergency to help each other when the Johns Creek Fire Department cannot get to the scene right away?

Sound far-fetched? Lt. Chris Wall of the Johns Creek Fire Department asks local residents to remember back to “Snowpocalypse” three years ago. A combination of snow and ice brought every Atlanta area city to a standstill.

Everybody’s emergency equipment and personnel were strained to the limit.

Johns Creek Fire Chief Jeff Hogan said the program is similar to the popular CERTS program, Citizens Emergency Response Team that uses trained volunteers in emergencies.

“It came as a response to an idea from one of our citizen fire classes to have us go into the neighborhoods and teach citizens there,” Hogan said. “Alpharetta has a huge CERTS program. The HEAT Program is a spinoff of that.”

Working through HOAs, firefighters train these teams to deal with situations until emergency personnel can arrive. This is not for the normal 911 emergency calls, however. These teams train for unusual circumstances.

Wall, developed the HEAT program, and so far has two teams, one at Medlock Bridge subdivision and the other at the St. Ives community.

“I wanted to create a program unique to Johns Creek,” said Wall. “They would be called in the event of fire disasters, major storms or any significant event as backup to the first responders.”

There could be any number of significant events where some units were already tied up and these HEAT teams could be called in. Wall made it clear no civilian would be fighting fires. But they might take on tasks from rolling up hoses to performing first aid or CPR to victims for whom EMTs were not on scene.

“They could do a lot in an emergency,” said Wall. “It could be anything from bandaging an injury to stabilizing a spinal cord victim – after a tornado, say. They could be called out for light search and rescue for a missing child or elderly person or to carry stretchers.

“They might be called on to do triage – that determining who among the injured need the most help quickly.”

Wall said it is hard to train for one specific disaster, but if the teams can learn basic skills, then they can adapt to the circumstances.

“They have the training to get from the chaos of the event to a measure of control.”

While similar to CERTS training, Wall said this program is unique in that these are truly disaster situations where teams may operate on their own before assistance arrives.

“During Snowpocalypse, we had stranded people sleeping in the fire stations. If that storm had been a little bit worse, we could have had a real disaster,” he said.

“And the reality is if there is a major fire, we all go. All three stations will turn out,” Wall said. “So it is a slender thread if something else comes up while everyone is at the fire.”

Sean Conroy is the Medlock Bridge subdivision team leader. He got involved after taking a CPR course with the Fire Department. Then he signed up for a HEAT initiation course.

He said they have a good core group of 8 to 11 volunteers who now know how to react in an emergency. Usually they are thinking about some natural event – a tornado, wind storm or another blizzard.

Mostly they are trained for treating injuries, getting people stable and watching for signs of shock.

“We might come upon some power lines knocked down. We would rope off the area so that no one wanders into the wrong place. And we are provided equipment to suit the purpose,” Conroy said.

They are also trained to know how to respond to a tornado or to hazardous materials. And they can remain in contact easily with their own cell phones.

“We train on a regular basis. It does take some time. That is why you will most likely only see HEAT teams in the larger subdivisions,” Conroy said.

He said being on the HEAT team gives him a sense of confidence that in an emergency, they would be able to respond because they have been trained to do it.

“And an added bonus, we all [the team members] came together as strangers, but now we really know each other. So we have gotten to know each other as neighbors as well,” Conroy said.

Wall said he would like a similar team in every subdivision.

“It would almost be like having first responders in every community who could turn out for search and rescue or inspect storm damage. We could do a lot more simulated training with more teams,” Wall said.

They have already called on the Northview High School drama department for “victims” in their simulations.

“Those kids really got into their roles. They made the training very realistic,” he said.

Wall said teams always work in pairs and their mantra is “First Do No Harm.” Safety for the residents and the team members is always the foremost thing.

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