In a disaster like a tornado or a wildfire, people’s lives often depend on the speed and efficiency of first responders. Clean up and recovery, the province of second responders like the Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT), may not be matters of life and death, but they are important in helping people affected by disasters pick up the pieces of their lives.

“We go in, and if there are a lot of fallen trees, people with chainsaw training cut them up and move them aside so vehicles can get through and people can get into houses and start the clean-up there,” said LERT volunteer Don Lutz. “We help people return to normalcy after they’ve had destruction like that and reach out to people with our ministry of presence.”

The central Illinois district LERT will host a six hour disaster response training course March 16, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 13443 Townline Road, Green Valley. Sign-in will begin at 8:30 a.m. Training will start at 9 a.m., and sessions will end at 2:30 p.m. Training topics will include deployment operations, proper attire, working as teams in disasters, property management and comfort dogs.

“Since this is a basic training, it will cover a wide variety of situations,” said Lutz. “It could be a tornado scene, it could be a flood scene. It could be anything from cleaning up a site and removing debris to looking for people’s belongings or mopping out a house that’s been flooded. It’s also what we call a ministry of presence, because sometimes the homeowner’s there and you become a shoulder and an ear for their story so they can get past the incident.”

According to Stephen Born, Lutheran disaster response coordinator for central Illinois, every Lutheran Church district in the United States has established a LERT. The LERT for the central Illinois district currently consists of about 950 members.

“We started in August of 2013, and we have five to seven training sessions a year,” said Born. “The basic LERT training is for overall, and people who want to join a certain niche within LERT can take chainsaw training or comfort dog training.”

In December 2018, Central Illinois LERT members were among the responders who deployed to Taylorville, Ill., after a large tornado touched down there and injured 26 people and damaged about 500 buildings and 100 trees, said Lutz. Team members with chainsaw training helped remove 25 damaged trees, and others assisted with clean-up and removal of debris.

“The day I went down there, there were probably around a 100 volunteers who showed up from across the state to help with the recovery and cleanup,” he said. “Some people had even brought some heavy equipment to help with moving and removing heavy debris.”

Born estimates that between 15 and 20 people will attend the disaster response training course. Upon completion of the training, each new LERT member will receive a certification badge, which is carried with them during deployments. The certification is approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the LERTs are recognized as early responders by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve always done the proactive approach,” Born said. “We find it best that individuals should already be prepared before the storm hits.”