Community Emergency Response Teams & Disaster Volunteerism in Latin America

Reprinted from the Journal of Business Continuity & Emergency Planning


While it may be more common to think of a disaster volunteer as someone from outside the community who comes to assist during times of need, it is important not to forget those members of the community who are well poised to build grassroots resilience when provided with the necessary training and tools. This paper examines the state of disaster volunteerism in Latin America and Spanish-speaking communities in the USA who have been exposed to the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programme, with an emphasis on the perceptions of and motivations for grassroots volunteerism from the perspective of both local emergency managers and CERT volunteers. The research team developed an online survey and shared it with active Spanish-speaking emergency management groups throughout the USA, Mexico, Central and South America. Conducted over nine days in October 2022, the survey collected 40 responses from the target demographic. The results show that enthusiasm for disaster volunteerism is high throughout the communities surveyed. Established disaster volunteer training programmes like CERT and LISTOS have already been successfully exported from the USA to Chile, Honduras and Mexico. An international community of emergency managers should consider how else to support grassroots preparedness activities in Latin America to ensure that local communities are empowered to direct their own resilience-building initiatives.



Many local emergency managers around the world rely on community volunteers to augment the capacity and reach of their professional staff. During all phases of disaster management, it is common to see local volunteers supporting a wide range of activities, including community outreach, administrative support and disaster planning. There are also many communities that trust volunteers with more dangerous and skilled hands-on activities that may include light hazard mitigation projects and even urban search and rescue in the immediate aftermath of an event. In communities without professional emergency management staff, perhaps a much broader category globally, local community members may be the only leaders organising to reduce risk or lead disaster response. While it may be more common to think of a disaster volunteer as someone who comes from outside of the community to assist during times of need, one must not forget about the community members themselves who are well poised to build grassroots resilience when provided with the training and tools to build capacity.

This study examines the state of disaster volunteerism in Latin America and Spanish-speaking communities in the USA exposed to the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) programme, with an emphasis on the perceptions of and motivations for grassroots volunteers. To inform the study, the research team conducted and analysed the results of a survey conducted in October 2022, spoke with local emergency management leaders in these communities and attended community-based preparedness trainings in surveyed countries throughout 2022.

The results show that enthusiasm for disaster volunteerism is high throughout communities surveyed. In both urban and rural communities throughout the Western hemisphere, survey participants almost unanimously agree that community members make a difference in the safety and resilience of their communities. These findings offer promising possibilities for the growth of established US-based disaster volunteer programmes like CERT and LISTOS that teach critical emergency management skills alongside community-building techniques. Similarly, emergency managers in Latin America should be on the lookout for budding local efforts to build disaster resilience, as the study results show that volunteers in their communities are ready to take on leadership roles in risk reduction, preparedness, and community planning. In either case, the survey results show that as credible disaster preparedness training is rolled out to Spanish-speaking communities in the USA and Latin America, it will be met by willing organisers and trainees interested in building grassroot disaster resilience to keep their families and communities safe.


Recent History of Community Emergency Response Teams in Latin America

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the federal agency responsible for the coordination of federal resources in the event of a national-level emergency or crisis. FEMA leverages capacity from all levels of government, the private sector and nonprofits to 'make sure America is equipped to prepare for and respond to disasters'.FEMA manages the national CERT programme, which provides standardised emergency preparedness and response training to community volunteers through a network of local programmes. According to FEMA, CERT 'offers a consistent, nationwide approach to volunteer training and organisation that professional responders can rely on during a disaster situation'.Due to the grassroots nature of CERT, the programme is ideal for building community resilience at the local level. FEMA offers CERT training materials in a variety of languages, including Spanish,ensuring that the adoption of the CERT programme in Spanish-speaking communities will not reduce the fidelity of thoughtfully-developed coursework.

CERT training groups have been active in Latin America for almost ten years. In 2016, for example, the USA and Chile signed an agreement to strengthen prevention and response actions in emergencies.This agreement resulted in FEMA CERT instructors leading a series of CERT training sessions at Chile's National Firefighter Academy outside of Santiago in April 2017.

A similar training series was executed in Mexico City in November 2018. FEMA staff, in collaboration with Chilean CERT leaders, led a series of CERT courses at Mexico's National Center for Disaster Prevention to assist in the establishment of a national CERT programme.Unlike the 2017 event in Chile, the 2018 training in Mexico included collaboration from the Red Cross and other disaster volunteer groups like Team Rubicon, expanding the reach and sustainability of the Mexican national CERT programme.

At the closure of the Mexico training programme, CERT leaders and volunteers from the USA and Chile had the idea to found an international nongovernmental organisation to bring CERT and other grassroots preparedness training to communities throughout Latin America.Finally, in August 2021, ONG CERT Latin Global was officially registered as a nonprofit group incorporated in Chile. This nonprofit has now been instrumental in the development of CERT programmes in the nations of Chile, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Spanish-speaking communities within the USA.

The LISTOS programme began in California as a way to teach Spanish-speaking communities basic emergency preparedness tips. Managed by the Fire Services Training Institute (FSTI), LISTOS training is tailored to individual communities based on the cultural and linguistic nuances of each Spanish-speaking audience served.Unlike CERT, which focuses heavily on team organisation and disaster response skills, LISTOS is focused solely on building household preparedness. Given its targeted curriculum and commitment to tailored training, LISTOS offers a valuable complement to the structured CERT training that varies little from one community to another. While LISTOS has had success in Spanish-speaking communities in California and other US states, programme leaders at FSTI are now planning to introduce similar training across Latin America, starting with Chile.


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1. Federal Emergency Management Agency (2022) 'About Us', available at (accessed 2nd November 2022).
2. Federal Emergency Management Agency (2022) 'CERT Training', available at: (accessed 2nd November 2022).
3. Ibid.
4. Government of Chile, Ministry of the Interior and Public Safety (November 2016) 'ONEMI y FEMA subscriben acuerdo para fortalecer acciones de prevención y respuesta frente a emergencias' ['ONEMI and FEMA sign agreement to strengthen emergency prevention and response actions'], press release, available at: (accessed 2nd November, 2022).
5. US Embassy, Chile (2017) ‘FEMA/ONEMI: Colaboración en respuesta a emergencias’, [‘FEMA/ONEMI collaboration in emergency response’], available at: (accessed 2nd November, 2022).
6. Government of Mexico (November 2018) ‘CENAPRED, a través de la ENAPROC, con el apoyo de FEMA y ONEMI imparten el curso “Equipos de Respuesta Comunitaria a Emergencias CERT”’ [‘CENAPRED, through ENAPROC, with help from FEMA and ONEMI, delivers the CERT course’], available at: (accessed 2nd November, 2022).
7. ONG CERT Latin Global (2022) ‘Quienes Somos’, available at:
8. LISTOS (2022) ‘About: Alertar y Preparar’, available at: (accessed 3rd November, 2022).
9. Encinas, L. (November 2022) Interview conducted with M. Lyttle.

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