LAKEWOOD RANCH -- If a hurricane or other disaster hits Manatee County, some of your neighbors are prepared to lend a helping hand.
In the first few hours after a direct hit, cell phone service and land lines might be knocked out. Roads will probably be impassible. County rescue crews and paramedics will be overwhelmed with calls.
But within neighborhoods, trained volunteers, wearing green hard hats and carrying first-aid supplies, will be emerging to provide help and communicating by radio with the county's emergency operations center.
More than 700 volunteers form Community Emergency Response Teams througout Manatee County, with 200 of those in Lakewood Ranch. Each member goes through at least 20 hours of training in CPR and first-aid, basic search and rescue, damage assessment and communications.
David Forgash, a member of the Lakewood Ranch CERT board of directors,said the concept was launched in 1985 in Los Angeles.Citizens would be the first ones able to respond in an emergency, "when the roads are still blocked and before emergency crews can get in."
"We harness the power of individuals with training, education and a desire to volunteer."
Teams can go to work at a moment's notice and are not dependent on orders from state or federal agencies. "We self-activiate," he said. "We're out there minutes after it's deemed safe."
Many CERT volunteers say they do it because they want to give back to the community.
Marilyn Kline and her husband, Victor, are retired and moved to Florida five years ago. "You can only play so much golf," she said. "We were looking for things to be of use to the community."
Kline said the knowledge she gained during training is useful for anyone.
"It's information everyone should know to keep yourself and your family safe," she said.
The president of Lakewood Ranch's CERT teams, Barb Davey, agrees. A retired teacher who had just relocated to Florida, Davey joined CERT in 2007 to learn about hurricanes.
"I wanted to know what to do," Davey said. "It's been a very educational experience."
Karen and Jonathan Lynn moved to Lakewood Ranch a little more than a year ago and are already CERT volunteers.
"It's doing good in the neighborhood, which is what it's all about, really," Karen Lynn said.
CERT teams are always looking for more volunteers, with a variety of skills, including as logistics, radio communications, organizing volunteers and caring for the injured.
Lakewood Ranch is a big area with lots of people, the Lynns noted. "And it's growing," Jonathan Lynn said.
Steve Simpson, emergency operations manager with the Manatee County Department of Emergency Management, says the CERT program makes neighborhoods stronger.
He urged about 100 Lakewood Ranch residents at a hurricane preparedness presentation last week at Town Hall to think about volunteering. "Take some responsibility for the community," he told them.
"If you can help yourself, that's great. If you can help others, we can all be better off," he said.
If you would like to become a CERT volunteer, contact Simpson at 941-749-3500, ext. 1670.
Jim DeLa, East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JimDeLaBH.