Years ago, my local CERT program started hosting an annual event where members could share what they carry in their kit. The pow-wow style gathering provided an opportunity for the team to get ideas for upgrades to their kits from other members and, if we're being honest, a chance to brag about new gear you've added to your setup. We affectionally called this event the "Backpack Class" but, if it was a class, everyone was the teacher and we're all students.
Word must have spread across the region that we had a class on how to build a CERT kit because I got a call from another program leader asking if we could teach the Backpack Class at an upcoming region-wide training event. Clearly, this was not a topic that had interest in just my humble town.
Building and maintaining a CERT kit can be overwhelming for everyone and too often results in inadequacies and neglect for lack of action. Looking at others' pristine and fully-equipped kits can make you feel like the bar is too high - whether that's due to the amount of time you'll need to spend getting there, or the amount of money that will be separated from your wallet (or both, right?).
So how do you build the perfect CERT kit? That's what we'll pursue in this article.
First things first; Let's define what this article is and is not. This will be a philosophical pursuit of the closest thing to perfection we can find. The journey will be taken by way of attitude, not tangibles. I intent to share experience and provoke thought. There are a plethora of sites and articles on the internet that will tell you exactly what you need to put in your bag. I have no intention of providing a checklist of gear to purchase as there is no one-size-fits-all gear list for every CERT member out there. We all deal with very different needs, missions, hazards, communities, climate, and geography.
Me, My Team, Others
CERT 101: My safety is above everyone else. Remember when we attended CERT classes and our instructor kept beating us over the head with "Your safety is the top priority"? There is good reason for that and we should apply the same principle to the configuration of our gear. Something I ask myself before adding anything to my kit, "Who benefits from this?". We need to ensure that our own safety and comfort are prioritized before anything else, second only to that of our teammates, and finally others. I would argue that what is carried on my person should be for me only. If that item happens to have a utility for others, that's great, as long as its primary purpose serves me. There is a dedicated place for items that serve others after I have taken care of my needs. More on that later.
Probability vs. Possibility
Another fallacy I see too often is the prioritization of possibility over probability. Too often, we try to solve for every possible scenario, while sacrificing valuable capacity for probable situations. One of my instructors once asked me if I was ready should a purple unicorn come flying into the room unannounced. "Is it not possible that could happen?", he asked. "I guess I can't say it's impossible." I replied. "But is it probable?" he responded. Of course that's hyperbole but the lesson remains impactful to me nearly 10 years later. Now, instead of basing my preparations with "What if", I ask myself "What's probable?". I challenge you to think critically about the probability of the scenario you are trying to mitigate when packing that bag.
What are zones?
Even after taking inventory of the probabilities, you will likely still end up with a fair mass of equipment. Why stuff all of that into a giant bag when you can break it up into zones and lighten your load. What are zones? They're simply a way of dividing your probabilities into frequency and urgency of use, as well as mission duration. Let me explain.
1 - Onboard
Zone 1 is what you carry on your person such as pants pockets, vest pockets, belt attachments, and wearables. These are lighter weight items that have the highest probability of being used on a moment-by-moment basis. Examples include writing utensils, small tools (knife, multitool), cell phone, gloves, radio, light, etc. A good load bearing vest, a pair of cargo pants and a solid belt helps immensely with this. If your mission duration is a few hours or less, you should be able to perform with your zone 1 loadout only.
2 - Nearby
Zone 2 is what goes in a small pack that can easily be carried on your person or set aside to be retrieved in relatively short time. Examples include a small lightweight pack that contains water, spare radio battery, small snack, hat. This zone is also a great place for minor hazards specific to your operational area such as bug spray, sunscreen, compass, etc. If your deployment last an entire day, zone 2 will support you.
3 - Resupply
Zone 3 is where you get closer to the "what if" of your kit - without falling off the edge - and will support deployments that last more than one day, or have strenuous demands for a full day mission. There are a wide variety of items that could go into zone 3 and that largely depends on each individual. This zone may be a large duffel bag that you leave in your vehicle or at the command post to resupply when needed.
I promised we would not be going into gear recommendations. We won't, but let's think categorically about what to consider for your holistic loadout. Here are some questions you should be asking.
What can you carry on you? I would invest in a decent-to-great pair of technical pants that can support a moderate zone 1 loadout. The more you can comfortably carry on your person, the less you need to stuff in - and retrieve from - your zone 2 or 3 packs.
Do your clothes provide good storage?
Are they comfortable for multiple hours, and in less ideal positions?
What about weather resistance?
More importantly, protection from friction and scrapes?
How long can you carry it? I don't believe most CERTs give enough though to how heavy a backpack really is. Do you know how long can you carry that thing before your shoulders, neck, and/or back start hurting?
How quickly can you access it? I have watched much time being wasted taking off a pack, finding an item inside, and wrestling the pack back onto someone shoulders. Many of the CERTs I know are moving to single-strap sling bags for that reason; They can be accessed without taking them off. Either way, if you are having to don and doff your pack too frequently, consider promoting that item to zone 1, or rethinking the style of pack.
Should you have more than one pack? If you have the probability of responding to different scenarios that have a major divide in context, consider packing a bag for each one. Where this can become problematic is if you are storing your primary PPE such as your CERT branded vest and hard hat. However, it may be practical to have a bag for weather-related events, and another for community events, for example.
Are the contents protected? For those of you in areas prone to thunderstorms and hurricanes, you know that rain is going to stick around for a while. While many bags claim weather resistant features, there's almost always a pathway for water to find its way inside. Consider watertight containers such as resealable plastic bags to protect those supplies from water intrusion.
I have a good feeling that most CERTs are familiar with the rule of 3's but let's summarize: You can survive 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter in harsh conditions, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. There's your prioritization when it comes to consumables. Protect your airway, have something to drink, then think about food. Consider that you will be under higher-than-normal stress conditions so you will want to consume more than you do on your average day.
Water is heavy! Just over 8 pounds per gallon. Fortunately the weight goes down as you consume it but, don't fall victim to the pain from carrying enough water for three people. Take what you need, plus a little more. Also consider that in most cases of sustained deployments, there will be multiple organizations (volunteer and commercial) that will provide relief to volunteer responders. Is it possible they won't show? Ya, it is. But we're in the probability game, remember?
Filtration and sanitation. It is rare that volunteer responders need to source drinking water from non-potable sources. Fortunately, water filtration and purification products have advanced to become lighter weight, more compact, and much more affordable in recent years. Consider adding one to your kit and keep it maintained.
Is that stuff expired? Probably. Better check and replace it if so.
What is realistic? A tomahawk with an integrated glass breaker and ballpoint pen? I would argue no. A good quality water/gas shutoff tool, definitely. The former is dead weight whereas the latter is value added.
Can you consolidate? A good quality multitool is an excellent example of consolidating tools to reduce weight and volume. Examine the application of your tools and try to find way to consolidate without sacrificing quality.
Should it go in zone 3? If you have a tool with a lower probability of use, consider demoting it to zone 3 so you can free up space and increase comfortability. When it's needed, you or a runner can retrieve it. If you still think you need that tomahawk, definitely throw it in zone 3.
Can you improvise? The disaster zone is full of tools, you just have to think creatively. A thick piece of rebar can be a lever. An unhinged door is a backboard. You get the idea; there's no need to take everything with you.
Who is priority? Your CERT program and sponsoring agency should be set up to supply your team with all of the medical equipment needed for a mass casualty event. Your own medical supplies should prioritize your health and safety, so don't try to be a walking hospital.
Do you have personal needs? If you rely on prescription medication, rotate that through your kit. If you are prone to headaches or muscle soreness, rotate some pain medication through as well.
Where is your medical kit? Absolutely keep your personal medical kit - or Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) - on your person, zone 1. This should never be separated from you as long as your are deployed.
Zone 3 supplies
Do you know how to use it? Surely we all know how to take ibuprofen but what about packing a wound? I think all of us are in a perpetual need of training when it comes to trauma supplies. Try to attend a hemorrhage control (Stop the Bleed) class on a regular basis because that is certainly a perishable skill.
Technology can be a force multiplier, use it! There some fantastic mobile applications on the market that can help with team communications, organization, resource tracking, documentation, and mapping. There are some important considerations before fully integrating technology into your response.
Is everyone using it? Many applications are dependent on full team integration, meaning they will not serve their intended purpose unless everyone is using it, and using it correctly. If your team is not regularly training with that app, you can count on it being more of a hinderance than a solution. Additionally, you may be working with responders outside of your team and that solution will likely not be interoperable.
Does it require a data connection? If the application requires a connection to send or receive data, you may want to see if certain features are available offline. For example, if using a mapping app, you can usually download maps so they are stored on the device instead of relying on the cloud to supply map information in the field.
Do you have a backup plan? If your technology solution takes a nosedive in the field, you'll want to have another method of accomplishing that objective. A physical map and compass can replace an interactive digital map if you know how to use it. Good ol' fashioned pencil and paper is an excellent stand-in for digital notes. Analog radio is a reliable backup to text and chat.
Can you keep a charge? USB rechargeable batteries are prolific these days, and prices are competitive. There is a weight consideration but you can mitigate this by packing a battery pack that has the minimum capacity for your probable mission duration. I find that 10,000 mAh is ideal if I only have one or two small electronics to recharge.
Lighting is absolutely essential to any kit and should be a factor in all three zones. The good news is that the flashlight market is very dense with options. That's also the bad news.
Get recommendations from your friends, family, and CERT teammates. Anyone who is a flashlight nerd will hold you hostage for hours offering recommendations. They have likely spent hundreds of dollars trying different brands and models so take advantage of that experience.
A good light source can burn through batteries quickly. For that reason, you want to have either a spare light source or an extra power source for that light. Choosing a flashlight that uses AA or AAA batteries means you will probably be able to find them in your environment. A rechargeable flashlight can leverage that battery pack we talked about earlier but recharging takes time.
Quantity OR Quality? You can't have both so you'll have to decide if you want to buy/carry multiple light sources that are more affordable or spring for a higher quality - thus more expensive - option.
Hands free? Most CERT volunteers I know and run into have lights mounted to their hard hats. This is extremely helpful when you need both hands to move debris or attend to a patient. I am seeing more CERT volunteers mount ambient lighting to their hard hats or vests that are low output and downward facing. The purpose of these types of lights are to aid in walking through a dark area and to help with documentation.
Buy a radio already! Going into emergency radio communications is very tempting but let's keep it high level. Like flashlights, radios can be as affordable or expensive as you want. Even if you don't know how to use a radio, or even if you are not licensed, you should own at least one handheld radio and keep it in zone 1.
Practice as much as you can, or want to. Your team may have events where you can practice simplex or net operations. Ask around you will find opportunities to practice and the people to help you. If your program does not have these opportunities, suggest it.
Also like flashlights, radio can run through batteries in just a few hours. Spare batteries are available on the cheap for most radios. They are typically small and lightweight. if your radio dies in the field, you may feel stranded. Heck you may be stranded. Keep an extra battery with you.
CERT programs that have successful radio operations have one thing in common: They standardize their radios across the program. That just means that most, if not all, members are using the same radio and are programming them with the same stored frequencies (channels). This drastically improves the team's ability to communicate with one another, troubleshoot issues in the field, and swap radios without a learning curve.
Wrapping it Up
In conclusion, there is no one-size-fits-all list of what every CERT member should carry in their kit. This is a mental exercise, not a contest to see who fit as many cool toys into a backpack or how much MOLLE webbing you have on your back. Leverage the expertise and experience on your team but don't let someone's pristine setup stop you from making decisions. Remember that being 1% prepared is better than 0%.
Here's what I want you to do:
- Take care of yourself first
- Prioritize on probability
- Mitigate minutia
- Ask around
And here's what you should avoid:
- Solve for every scenario
- Prioritize possibility over probability
- Stress, physically or emotionally
- Rely on someone else’s checklist
- Assume everything will work
Anecdotally, I know a gentleman that carries everything he needs in a small fanny pack and it's never let him down. Could it one day? Possibly, but not probably. Watch out for that purple unicorn.