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7 steps to leading your Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT)

An effective CERT requires leadership, planning, time and commitment


State forest ranger Dan Fox reviews a map with members of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision emergency response team before entering a wooded area in search of two prisoners who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility on Monday, June 8, 2015, in Dannemora, N.Y.

AP Photo/Mike Groll

An effective Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) doesn’t just happen. It requires leadership, planning, time and commitment. Here are seven steps to CERT success:

1. Identify the Team’s Goals and visions

Whether you are the team leader or the warden, what makes or breaks a team is the vision set forth by leadership. Goals are like mile markers, you reach one and then rest, then move onto the next one. Goals are achievable.

Goal examples:

  • Get each team member certified with the SCBA;
  • Start/change a team fitness program;
  • Get funding to provide a new piece of equipment for the team.

A vision is much more. It is a path on a long journey set by the leader for others to follow. It starts as a small trail, but a good vision widens and is travelled easier as more and more people follow. A good vision is a journey, good goals are road trips.

Vision examples:

  • Ensure that our team members are known as leaders of the department through their integrity, work ethic and actions as a team and individually;
  • To train hard, expand our tactical knowledge and be prepared for the day our staff, community and facility need us.

Once you have identified the vision and goals for the team, invest time to find out the individual goals of each team member. Have they joined the team to further their career, get more training or develop camaraderie? Knowing why your team members are there can help in setting new and future goals for the team. Common goals can make finding a common vision easier.

2. Invest in Training

The worst thing that can happen to a team is poor training. Find a great trainer who will invest time and effort in developing training that is engaging, informative and exciting. Identify what motivates your members. Knowing their motivation can help you plan training that already has their interest.

Most of all, don’t waste their time. Most teams only get a limited amount of training time and team members are there because they want training. Remember these are motivated people investing their time into this training, and it is up to the leader to make sure they come away from training days with new skills and knowledge. For some of your members, day to day work inside the prison doesn’t change much. Many look forward to learning a new skill, discovering improved ways to do their job, or just the pride of having met a new challenge.

3. Lead by Example

There are team leaders who tell everyone to dress out while they wear civilian clothes. The team leader who expects members to put in a “full eight hours” and then leaves early. The leader who has the team members running entry drills while they sit in the office and talk on the phone. Have you had some team leaders like this? How did it make you feel?

Team members want and expect good leadership. They are willing to put in the time needed and the effort to be the best, but only for those team leaders who expect the best from themselves and everyone else.

The best leaders lead by example and the best teams are led the same way.

4. Provide for Individual Ownership

Your members should always feel part of the team as a whole, but breaking the team into squads or sections can let individual members feel like they have a certain level of ownership in the team:

  • Squad Leaders: Assignment of squad leaders allows for leadership at the team level. Team members like to feel they “have a say” in the direction of the team. This approach allows for a depth of leadership in the team that will serve well in real life situations. Remember, these are the next leaders, start their leadership training now.
  • Specialty Teams: Allow team members to have a specialty they can excel in.
  • Trainers: Many of your members may have skills that they brought with them from the military or another agency. Allow them to share that knowledge, but be careful. Not all agencies teach the same tactics or skills. Have a conversation with the trainer and look at his/her lesson plan before incorporating this training into your program.

5. Recruit by Example

The most effective and easy way to recruit is by example. Team members’ actions in their day to day jobs should be the recruitment poster for the team. People naturally want to be a part of organizations and teams that are successful. Share the successes. Did someone on your team get noticed, promoted or awarded? Don’t just tell the team, tell their co-workers. These are the times recruiting is easy.

6. deal with the Bad Apples

No matter how bad new members are needed, don’t feel fill team vacancies just for numbers. If the person you are selecting isn’t good enough when you have a full complement, then they are not good enough when you need to build membership. Bringing a person on your team that has a negative attitude or bad behavior can put the whole team at risk. Not only can this type of person bring the team morale down, their behavior can reflect poorly on the team as a whole.

If the leader does find himself/herself in this situation, it can often be used for team building. Empower the team members to bring this person up to the level of the team. Peer pressure can do wonders. If this is not effective, or the newfound “bad apple” is resistant, then remove them from the team quickly and decisively. A lengthy, drawn-out removal can often fester and cause problems with the rest of the members.

7. Give them your Best

CERT teams are sometimes the last defense for many prison incidents. It takes a special kind of officer to step up and say, “I’m that person. I will give up my time and effort to prepare for the day I am needed. ” As a team leader, you owe them the best leadership and training you can to ensure your members are ready for that day.

This article, originally published January 2015, has been updated.

Host of The Prison Officer Podcast, Mike Cantrell has been in corrections for over 28 years. He has recently retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons as the Chief of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. He is a firearms, less lethal, breaching and disturbance control instructor and has led special response, disturbance control and canine teams over his career.

He is a correctional consultant specializing in the use of force and physical security. He is a writer, content creator and speaker on leadership and crisis management.