Those who take a planned 32-hour course in disaster response and preparedness could be rewarded with the "golden ticket to re-entry" into the Keys the next time the island chain gets hit with a hurricane, county officials said this week.
Re-entry into the Keys was a hot-button issue in the days after September's Hurricane Irma, with tempers flaring and hordes of people lining up at a Florida City checkpoint waiting to be let back home.
People taking the course will be in the initial waves of those allowed to return because they will be tasked with helping their community recover, said Martin Senterfitt, Monroe County's emergency management's director.
"We give you a 32-hour course and we teach you how to be safe in a disaster environment," Senterfitt said. "We teach you how to be self-sufficient and we sign off on that. Now we no longer have that liability issue because you have actually been trained to come into a disaster area and work."
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The concept will become the Monroe County Emergency Reserves Corps, made up of trained residents who would help in the initial days of recovery following a storm like Irma, or in other incidents like the Zika outbreak two years ago, the screwworm infestation with Big Pine Key's key deer and most recently, the six-day brush fire in Big Pine.
"So this isn't something you get involved in and you never use," Senterfitt said during a public meeting on the proposal at the Marathon Government Center Monday night.
Ideally, Senterfitt said he wants from 20 to 30 people to take Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, training classes in four areas of the Keys — Stock Island, Big Pine Key, Marathon and Islamorada.
He told the crowd of about 70 people Monday that many people in the Keys helped their neighbors after Irma, but it wasn't done in a coordinated manner that could have taken advantage of government resources and helped first responders, police and utility workers.
"The idea with CERT is it's a pretty simple concept," Senterfitt said. "We give you 32 hours of training. You then come back into the county shortly after the storm. The first thing I want you to do is check your own house. Get your own house in order as a base of operations.
"But, here's the ask. As soon as you finish solving your own house problems, I need you to leave your house and walk over to your neighbor's house and help your neighbor. Get your neighbor's house in order, and then you and your neighbor walk over and help your next neighbor. It's neighbor helping neighbor, helping neighbor, and we start spreading out throughout the community."
CERT-certified residents would be allowed back in once the fire department, law enforcement and utilities deemed roads and bridges safe to travel.
Senterfitt defended the wait after Irma, saying it wasn't safe for returning civilians for much of the first week after the Category 4 storm passed. Government officials could be criminally liable for those injured in disaster areas, he said.
But, once people take the CERT class, the government's liability is lifted, Senterfitt said. Graduates of the program are granted a "golden ticket of reentry," which is a placard they place on their dashboards that signals to police manning checkpoints to let them back into the Keys.
The county would also gain financial benefits from people taking the class in the form of credits to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Senterfitt said. Monroe County is responsible for paying for 12 1/2 percent of the recovery cost from a hurricane, with FEMA picking up 75 percent and the state another 12 1/2 percent. The latest official figures show Irma causing about $100 million of damage in the Keys.
"Think about 12 and a half percent of $100 million," Senterfitt said. "We just don't have $12 and a half million" lying around.
But, the county can get credit with FEMA for every person who takes the course, Senterfitt said.
"We take all of our salaries and the vehicles we use and the equipment and we start doing a match service in kind to our 12 and a half percent," he said. "Every hour people like you work, at minimum, is worth $24 an hour back to that county match."
The county is not only looking for people to work on the scene, but is also reaching out to people to take the course who may not be ready or healthy enough to endure the rigors of a post-disaster environment. Senterfitt said the county's Emergency Operations Center was understaffed, and he'd like volunteers next time to help there with administrative work.
He also wants volunteers trained to be able to teach CERT classes.
The proposal was well received during the meeting, but some wondered why, with hurricane season only weeks away, the CERT program hasn't already been implemented.
"How soon can you start? We should have started this eight moths ago," Tommy Ryan, of Big Pine Key, asked Senterfitt.
Cammy Clark, spokeswoman for Monroe County, said Senterfitt "is working as quickly as possible to put the classes together." Class locations will depend on level of interest throughout the Keys, Clark said.
Those interested in being put on a list to receive the CERT training, to volunteer for the Monroe County Emergency Reserves Corps or to receive more information should go to www.monroecounty-fl.gov/volunteermonroe or call 305-289-6018.