Newport Beach was represented in the White House this week, with one local leader praised for his efforts to prepare the community in case of an emergency.
Newport Beach Fire Department’s Life Safety Specialist Matt Brisbois was honored as a Champion of Change for disaster preparedness during a special ceremony at the White House on Tuesday. Brisbois heads up the city’s Community Emergency Response Team, comprised of more than 1,000 resident volunteers.
The White House recognized 18 individuals, eight of which attended the ceremony in Washington D.C. Newport Beach CERT board member Karen Tringali also attended. FEMA paid expenses for Brisbois to attend, while donated funds paid for Tringali.
“It was a really wonderful event,” Brisbois said after returning home on Wednesday. “It was great to be out there with all the other award winners and to be recognized. It was an honor to represent the group.”
He emphasized that it was a group award for the entire program and all the volunteers in it.
“I really wish I could have all 1,000 of my volunteers here today,” Brisbois said as he thanked them during the ceremony.
They are very active in the community, he continued, and really believe in the program.
“Although I may be up here accepting this award on behalf of the city,” Brisbois said, “it really is the 1,000 volunteers that are sitting there, in 72 degree weather by the Pacific probably enjoying themselves, that really, really should be here.”
Many of those volunteers, dressed in their green CERT vests, gathered in the friends room at the library at 10 a.m. on Tuesday to watch the live feed of the ceremony, along with other community members, Newport Beach Fire Department personnel and city representatives, including Mayor Keith Curry.
Brisbois and the other champions each spoke for a few minutes about their respective programs. Back at home, more than 50 people cheered as Brisbois spoke on screen.
“He hit a home run,” said Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Kitch. “I thought he expressed very clearly the idea of being prepared for disasters and what the CERT program does for individuals and the community.”
The program provides community members the tools to be more effective in performing critical functions in a post-disaster scenario, he said.
“I firmly believe that our CERT volunteers and their level of commitment, leadership and responsibility, (in part) defines what Newport Beach is,” Kitch said. “I’m incredibly proud and it’s incredibly well deserved.”
CERT volunteers Bob Chambers and Peter Putnam, who is also the community director on the CERT board of directors, agreed that Brisbois was very deserving of the award.
“Matt (Brisbois) is the best leader we could possibly have for this program,” Putnam said.
“He has worked hard over the years in developing the CERT volunteer organization,” Chambers added, “and he’s done a great job.”
The award was also recognized during Tuesday’s city council meeting.
“Newport Beach Fire Department and management could not be prouder of our program and our volunteers,” Kitch said at the meeting. “To receive this kind of recognition at the national level, from the White House and from Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks to the core of our program and to the ongoing commitment and spirit shown by our resident CERT volunteers.”
Putnam, on behalf of the 1,000 other volunteers, presented Curry with a embroidered shirt and a personalized green CERT vest at the council meeting.
“I am very proud of Matt (Brisbois) and our entire citizen CERT team,” Curry wrote in an email. “Our CERT program is one of the factors that make Newport Beach so special.”
Curry emphasized the importance of the national recognition. It’s the top CERT program in the nation, he said.
In 2012, the Newport Beach CERT program won FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Award for Outstanding CERT Initiatives and an honorable mention for Volunteer Integration.
Following last year’s awards, this recognition is “the icing on the cake,” Brisbois said.
It was also interesting to interact with the other winners, Brisbois said, and to learn from their experiences.
“There are several things we are looking to bring back and implement in Newport Beach,” he said.
Also being honored as Champion of Change were large regional and statewide programs from across the country.
“It’s an honor that Newport Beach, at just 88,000 [residents], could really be looked upon as one of the leaders,” Brisbois said.
But there is still room for improvement, he said. He wants to work on targeting youth and getting young people involved, something another champion spoke passionately about during the ceremony.
Later, during the discussion, Brisbois commented that FEMA should give realistic expectations for residents.
The message that FEMA will fly in like Superman and save the day is not realistic, he explained, and it’s not really the message that resonates with residents regarding personal preparedness.
“We want them to be less reliant upon government and more reliant upon themselves,” he added. “I think that’s really what we could use (from the federal government) at a local level, in terms of getting that message across.”
The CERT program teaches citizens to be self-reliant, Putnam said. It shows residents how to protect their home, help their neighborhood and provide assistance to the city, he continued.
It’s very interesting and rewarding, Chambers said.
“It really gets you involved in the community,” he added. “You get to know (your neighbors).”
It’s also about thinking ahead, getting prepared and being organized, Kitch said.
“Taking action now to be prepared in the future,” he said.
Kitch recommends residents sign up for CERT classes, which are for all ages and all walks of life. There is a fee for non-residents.