In case of emergency, Mercer Island volunteers embrace disaster training

By Kienan Briscoe

For the Reporter

To Pat Hackett, CERT-certified volunteer, preparing for disaster is paramount.

For the past eight years, she has put these words to test by volunteering countless hours educating the community of Mercer Island to do just that — prepare for not if, but when, disaster strikes.

In 2015, Hackett read an article in the New Yorker, “The Really Big One,” that discussed how a large earthquake could potentially destroy a sizable portion of the Pacific Northwest. That article made such an impact with her that she knew, in that moment, she had to become disaster prepared.

“Frankly it really scared me because I didn’t know the extent of what could happen,” said Hackett.

The last 9.0 subduction quake was in 1700 and was created a tidal wave that soared completely over Vancouver Island, hitting 800 miles of coastline from British Columbia to California.

“If that would happen today, it would be a tremendous disaster. Can you imagine how many millions of people that would affect?” said Hackett. “You just need to be aware that this can happen and be prepared for it.”

The first step was taking one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’ (FEMA) Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) classes — a seven-week course encompassing terrorism, search-and-rescue, disaster preparedness, fire safety, and medical.

Through this course, Hackett began realizing she not only needed equipment, but also a means of communication if networks, like cell phone towers and wifi, were to go down. This led her to becoming a certified ham radio operator and vice chairman of the Mercer Island Radio Operators in the process — an active group of about 30 to 40 ham radio operators on the Island with two radio rooms, one at Mercer Island City Hall and another at the Mercer Island Community Events Center.

Every second Thursday of the month, a member fo the MI Radio Operators fires up a UHF/VHF radio in one of these rooms to check in, or “net,” with its members and to test the signal with a net operator. The group also holds monthly meetings, executive meetings, and participates in a number of community events such as providing radio for Mercer Island’s annual Rotary Half Marathon.

Just last year, Hackett erected a tower and antenna on Mercer Island to increase its high frequency radio signals and even has several UHF/VHF/and HF radios in her home. These radios have come a long way since the days of morse code, she explained, even having the capability to send emails and text messages up to a couple thousand miles away if conditions are right.

Hackett’s devotion to emergency preparedness didn’t stop there. She then became a volunteer for Mercer Island and took two classes on the Incident Command System, essentially an approach to common control and coordination emergency response through establishing a hierarchy. This is important because in the case of an emergency, “there is a structure that happens,” Hackett said, and CERT classes are great way to learn how it all works.

There are around 80 active volunteers in Mercer Island who have completed these CERT classes and are badged to work in neighboring communities.

“This community is really very supportive from a volunteer sense,” said Hackett.

The CERT certification process is conducted in a classroom setting beginning with disaster preparedness basics, fire safety, search and rescue, communications, and basic first aid. After that, there is a practical test.

Since receiving her CERT certification in 2018, Hackett has volunteered her services to several emergencies, most recently aiding Issaquah in their vaccination efforts during the pandemic at Lake Sammamish State Park. Additionally, she is trained and certified to operate Mercer Island’s emergency water well, if needed, which the city completed in 2010 as a backup water source in the case of an emergency. Mercer Island is one of very few communities in the nation that have a well like this.

Hackett also works closely with Mercer Island Police Officer Jennifer Franklin through the city’s Map Your Neighborhood Program, which holds events to educate residents how they can prepare for disaster. Over the course of the program, about 200 different neighborhoods have been mapped on the island.

“We’re more like a neighborhood volunteer group. In other words, we can provide support to our neighbors in the case of an emergency because first responders will be overwhelmed and there aren’t enough of them for a community of 25,000,” said Hackett. “You need citizens that are, at least, semi-prepared to know what to do.”

Be prepared

To prepare for disaster, whether it be storms, earthquakes, terrorism, an active shooter, or so on, Hackett recommends everyone first assemble what she calls a “Go Bag” in your car, home, or office. This should include three days of food and water, a medical kit, a multitool, extra clothes, walking shoes, flashlight, batteries, cell phone charger, medicine, and copies of important documents, among other things. She then suggests learning how to turn off the gas, electricity and water at your house because fire is one of the biggest issues after an earthquake.

Hackett recommends everyone take a CERT class because “winging it is not a safety precaution.” Beginning on May 1, every Monday through June 26 from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., those who want to learn more on disaster preparedness can attend a meeting at Mercer Island City Hall.

“If you think that we, on any shift here, have maybe seven firefighters and three police officers that are moving around — there are more of course at the station, but that’s not enough to handle an island,” said Hackett.

Just last year, Hackett was just named lead volunteer for Mercer Island and has begun teaching classes on how to build a shelter, well operations, and run drills. She is currently furthering her training through several FEMA programs.

Hackett has a degree in biology and worked as a commercial artist agent before retiring. After moving all around the country, she and her family settled in Mercer Island during the 1970s and have called it home since.

When she’s not helping her community prepare for disasters, she is a competitive weight lifter, avid dog lover (companion to two golden retrievers), and active gardener.