Fire Hazard 

Splinting, spraying, and staying calm in a disaster.

Looking like a mix between a construction worker and a Wal-Mart cashier, I'm decked out in a hardhat, an oversized green vest, and a disposable face mask.

About a dozen other people, all wearing the same gear, are standing with me in a lot behind the Memphis Shelby County Emergency Management Agency (EMA), waiting to put out a fire. It's part of Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, an EMA service to teach citizens what to do during a disaster.

Our fire instructor pours a little gasoline in a fire pit. Another instructor, Wendy Cantrell, leads the first volunteer to the fire. They're just feet from the base when suddenly white powder spews from the volunteer's fire extinguisher, smothering the flames. Piece of cake, I think to myself.

When it's my turn, I hoist the heavy, red canister and Cantrell leads me to the flame. She tells me to squeeze the handle and aim at the base. For some reason, the fire's not going out. Cantrell is screaming, "Squeeze! Squeeze!"

I swear, I'm squeezing, but apparently, I'm doing something wrong. Finally, the white powder exhausts the flame, and as I look up, I notice my classmates coughing into their face masks. I might not be cut out to be a firefighter.

After everyone has a turn, we head to a basement classroom (the entire EMA complex is underground) to learn about disaster preparedness. Instructor Sandra Mathias teaches us everything from how to put together a disaster kit to how to strap down the water heater so it doesn't spill in an earthquake.

Mathias says most Memphians aren't prepared for natural disasters.

"During the last winter storm that we had, I went home and built a snowman while my neighbors were at the grocery store fighting over the last loaf of bread," jokes Mathias, who says she keeps kits in both her home and car.

In the event of a serious disaster, Cantrell estimates it could be seven to 14 days before an EMA rescue crew makes it to every neighborhood in the city. This training, she says, can help people survive until a professional arrives.

The next CERT class is August 5th-6th. To register, call 458-4101.

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