What is the first thing people want after a disaster? It’s not shelter, or food, or comfort. It’s information, says Troy Harris, who is the outgoing president of the Montecito Emergency Response & Recovery Action Group (MERRAG). His point was made evident last summer when the Zaca Fire licked the backdoor of Montecito. Web sites, public agencies, and information kiosks were swamped by citizens seeking any source for news or direction.
MERRAG is a 20-year-old network of Montecito volunteers who are trained to react to nearby emergencies. During the Zaca Fire, they quickly mobilized and worked hard to fill the information void. They set up two information kiosks in Montecito, often remaining at those posts for eight hours a day to answer the public’s questions and concerns.
To help cover the burgeoning quest for information during the Zaca Fire, MERRAG also distributed daily fire status reports via blanket email and directed the public to the Montecito Fire District’s hastily set up, and little known, temporary AM radio station. On the MERRAG Web site, white papers were posted, answering daily questions like why air tankers weren’t being used, how pyro-cumulous clouds were formed, and the best methodology for handling the hazardous ash flow.
As Harris pointed out at the MERRAG annual meeting last week-just prior to turning over the gavel to incoming president Mike McCaleb-the organization’s efforts and skill did not go unnoticed by the community. In November, MERRAG was honored as Montecito’s Citizen of the Year for its contributions, and the membership of the nonprofit volunteer group has doubled during the past five years.
MERRAG was conceived in 1987 by then-Montecito Fire District Chief Herb McElwee as an emergency “self-help” organization. After years of disaster response as a firefighter, McElwee understood that in the first 72 hours after a disaster, communities are often left on their own to cope. Emergency responders that are available usually are overwhelmed. McElwee believed that community volunteers, if properly trained, could offer assistance at that initial-and certainly critical-time.
With that thought in mind, McElwee recruited Montecito’s two other public service agencies, Montecito Water District and Montecito Sanitary District, and together they formed MERRAG. Soon afterward Westmont College, Montecito Union School, Cold Spring School, and Casa Dorinda came onboard, and later the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, the American Red Cross, Lotusland, San Ysidro Ranch, and Montecito Presbyterian Church, among others, joined in. Today, MERRAG is a 338-member organization that uniquely combines public and private organizations, working together in the development of a community-wide disaster plan.
The mission of the organization is to provide crucial personnel and communication support in the event of a community disaster-and, as seen during the Zaca Fire, they stand ready to respond. In addition to their proactive information stream, they also maintain a two-way private radio system, which can be used for communications if the power goes out. They are also experimenting with a low-powered AM radio station, which could be used in an emergency to broadcast current information. MERRAG also owns and maintains a mobile communications vehicle. Most importantly, they have a corps of trained volunteers who know how to assist professionals in a crisis situation with damage assessments as well as disaster preparation and recovery.
Responding to an emergency is a serious business, and MERRAG does not take it lightly. To make sure MERRAG volunteers help, and not hinder, emergency operations, MERRAG offers a monthly training course to certify volunteers. Sessions are often taught by members of the Montecito Fire District and included such topics as electrical safety, evacuation preparedness, fire extinguisher use, and disaster psychology.
If you’ve been thinking about doing some self-improvement education in 2008, why not take the MERRAG training? While MERRAG is focused on Montecito, anyone can attend the training sessions and no matter where you live, this education would be a neighborhood asset. The next session will be held on January 3, 2008, at 3:15 p.m. at 595 San Ysidro Road. To reserve a spot, or get general information about MERRAG, call Geri Ventura at 969-2537 or see merrag.org.
Remember, disasters aren’t planned for, but you can plan for disasters and-with some specialized MERRAG training-that life you save just might be your own!