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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Emergency Response Program Makes Cottonwood Heights A Model

Oct 07, 2015 02:14PM ● By Bryan Scott

Residents participate in emergency preparation drill. Photo courtesy of Debbie Mackintosh

By Brian Jones

For years residents living along the Wasatch Front have discussed the timing and potential fallout of the “Big One.” It seems like a safe bet that if and when a catastrophic event occurs in the Salt Lake Valley, many communities will be taken by surprise and crippled by the ensuing interruption of basic services we rely on in our daily lives. Thanks to a meticulously organized and well-oiled Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program, Cottonwood Heights likely will not be among that number. 

For Debbie Mackintosh and other local CERT leaders, ensuring their families and neighbors would be safe in a serious emergency led to the implementation of CERT procedures nearly a decade ago. “It really just started with being concerned with one another,” Mackintosh said. The concept of the volunteer CERT program was developed by Los Angeles firefighters in the mid-1980s, and has been copied in many communities around the country. The simple idea behind the program is that in an interruption of social services following a disaster, including communication with police, fire and medical personnel, residents’ ability to survive will be drastically improved if they have been trained and prepared and know beforehand exactly what to do in such situations. 

From an organizational perspective, the program works by dividing the city into districts, which are further divided into precincts (there are roughly 50 districts in Cottonwood Heights). Each precinct leader designates block captains within neighborhoods, who are responsible for five to 10 households on their block. Kelli Buxton, a local block captain, says the levels of organization and involvement are amazing. 

“Our job is to go to those houses we’ve been assigned and get to know those people. Find out how many kids they have, how many pets they have,” she said. 

Within their neighborhoods, block captains know where survival resources and services are, and they convey that information up the chain of communication. Ultimately that means in a disaster, the central Cottonwood Heights CERT leadership will have that information at its disposal if communication breaks down following a disaster and can direct local services where they are most needed.

Although there hasn’t been what most would consider a catastrophe, the Cottonwood Heights CERT program has already been utilized on at least one occasion. Mackintosh said several years ago when the spring runoff was particularly heavy, with local rivers and streams threatening to jump their banks, CERT leaders sprung into action. 

Check-in sites were set up around the city and precinct leaders directed residents where to go to volunteer. In a short amount of time volunteers were organized into groups for filling, hauling and stacking sandbags. 

“It was amazing to see literally an army of people willing to step up in an emergency,” Mackintosh said. 

As impressive as its organizational structure is, the key to CERT’s success is ultimately the willingness of community members to get involved. Buxton and Mackintosh agree that because it is completely operated and funded on a volunteer basis, the program simply can’t succeed unless residents agree to participate. 

“For the program to work we need all kinds of volunteers because in an emergency we’ll have all kinds of needs,” Mackintosh said. 

That need to get residents involved, according to both women, has also turned out to be the greatest short-term benefit of the program. In the process of preparing for future emergencies, neighbors are presented with a ready-made opportunity to get to know each other. Buxton said the effect in her neighborhood has been incredible. “I love getting to know my neighbors and having them want to get to know me and my family. It’s changed the whole atmosphere in the neighborhood.” 

“You see people really coming together as great neighbors, really looking out for each other,” Mackintosh added. “It creates a sense of family in the community.” 

Because the CERT program is citywide, whether they know it Cottonwood Heights residents have likely already been assigned to a neighborhood precinct. Mackintosh said anyone wanting more information about what’s happening in their area can visit the Cottonwood Heights city website, where there is a CERT information page, or her blog,, which is dedicated to educating the community about the program. More than anything she hopes residents will get involved, for the sake of future preparedness as well as the effect it can have on the community today. 

“Sometimes we underestimate the power of the human spirit to be inclusive and to feel included,” she said. “That’s what this program does.”