Jill Lee, a 30-something homeschooling mom, spends her days teaching her children and cleaning her home. She also reads manuals about biological and chemical weapons to prepare for a terrorist attack. In addition to being a mom and wife, Lee is the founder and leader of Nehemiah's Watchmen (www.orgsites.com/md/watchmen), a CERT team in her hometown of Port Deposit, Maryland.

CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team, volunteers who do search and rescue work and assess immediate needs in any community emergency, often as first responders. In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called for tripling the number of CERT-trained volunteers in the United States in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Nehemiah's Watchmen is the first cert team in Maryland, one of only twelve in the Mid-Atlantic, and the only church-based team in that region.

The group's mission statement quotes 2 Kings 11:6, calling for God's people to "keep watch of the house that it be not broken down." Their purpose is to stand up for the cause of Christ, to be used in the event of future disasters, to be a testimony to others while working alongside them, to serve others, and to be a comfort to those personally affected by disaster. "Who better to do search and rescue than God's people?" Lee asks.

The Los Angeles Fire Department developed the cert concept in 1985 to help meet relief needs after earthquakes. Fire officials saw that neighbors were trying to help each other but were sometimes getting injured or killed in the process. With proper training, officials reasoned, the risks would be curtailed. As cert spread nationwide, it was adapted to each geographical location so workers were trained for disasters most relevant to their area, such as hurricanes, winter storms, tornados—and, more recently, terrorism.

Lee had been considering volunteering to help with disaster relief for some time. But when terrorists attacked on September 11, Lee's outrage spurred her to action. "I thought, It's time for Christians to stand up and do something," Lee says, and she did—something that's turned out to be pretty big.

She began asking people how she could get involved and was directed to James Jackson, district chief of the United States Search and Rescue Task Force (www.ussartf.org). Jackson told Lee about CERT. Lee talked to members of her church, Pleasant View Baptist, and 27 signed up to be part of the team. Jackson met with the 10 women and 17 men for their first training in January.

Article continues below

Team members ranged in ages from 18 to 60 and included carpenters, electricians, former military personnel, and homemakers. Jackson led the team through the seven-part course over two concentrated eight-hour sessions. Team members learned disaster preparedness, fire suppression, basic triage, search and rescue techniques, disaster relief psychology, and team organization. When the lectures were completed, the students began outdoor simulation training.

They met on a cold Saturday morning and drove to a dilapidated building at an abandoned naval facility. The walls were crumbling and the windows were cracked. As they climbed out of their cars, they pulled on neon vests, goggles, gloves, boots, and hardhats with lights on top. "Anyone afraid of bats? There are some on the second floor," Jackson said, emerging from an old doorway, grinning.

Jackson had arrived early to prepare for the simulation training. He arranged for "bodies" and "injured" volunteers to wait in the building so the search and rescue team could find them and carry them out correctly. Jackson later lit fires in containers and team members practiced extinguishing them. The team also practiced rescuing people trapped under debris—in this case, dummies under a dumpster.

In the second phase of training, the group learned how to deal with terrorism. "Terrorism used to be a small blurb in the manuals," Jackson says, "but that changed." Some topics covered include a history of terrorism, potential threats, recognizing suspicious incidents, special risks, and scene control.

"One of the hardest parts of the course was learning about the hazardous materials, the biological and chemical weapons," Lee says. Jackson taught them the differences between the two, how to detect them, and the effects they have on the human body. "Depending on what it is," Lee says, "they might sweat, pass out, have convulsions or failure of their internal organs." Training updates occur every few months. In May the team worked with other search and rescue groups from the Mid-Atlantic region. Lee was stationed in a trailer set up as the command post. State officials were invited to watch the training. Jackson once again had victims inside the old building, but this time there were also "hazardous chemicals" to contend with. Fire suppression specialists from the teams headed in first to put out any fires. Dogs were also brought to help sniff out victims.

Now Nehemiah's Watchmen is going for the next step: to be certified by nasar (the National Search and Rescue Association). That will allow the team to operate independently when an emergency arises. "The nasar patch is recognized nationwide," says Lee. "They know you are capable."

Article continues below

The community is starting to take notice. The group received two citations even before its first official mission—helping clean up in the aftermath of a tornado at the end of April. It was the strongest tornado recorded in Maryland's history, sweeping through Charles and Calvert counties. Eighty buildings were leveled and four hundred damaged; six homes were completely swept up, and thousands left without power.

In fact, the team is becoming the cert poster child for Maryland. Lee has spoken at other churches, law enforcement meetings, and meetings of disaster relief groups. She was even invited to a Department of Homeland Security conference in Philadelphia in May. This summer Lee met with all of Maryland's law enforcement agencies to introduce them to cert.

"This has taken off like crazy," Lee says. "It's all new territory. So much is going on." Many churches are looking at the example of Pleasant View and seeing it as an opportunity to help during the country's troubled times. Lee says the group wants to keep its focus on ministry. "We will share [the gospel] as the opportunity presents itself," she says. "It's been something the way God has opened doors for our team."

"In a situation like 9/11, that's when people are seeking God the most," she adds, "and we can be there and share with them . …You don't know if you'll be with someone when they take their last breath."

Sharon Mager is a staff writer for BaptistLife in Columbia, Maryland.

Related Elsewhere

The official sites of Nehemiah's Watchmen, CERT, and the United States Search and Rescue Task Force include a lot more information on disaster training programs.

Sharon Mager is a staff writer for BaptistLife.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.