Stephen Orteig remembers the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001 all too well.

From his office at a Manhattan real estate company, he was able to clearly see the tragedy unfolding at the World Trade Center, and remembers seeing emergency vehicles screaming to the scene. He also remembers being one of many people who were standing around -- wanting to do something to help but not sure what.

"What really bothered me was dealing with helplessness," he said. "There was no system set up, and when cell service went out, you were literally on your own."

Now a Bayberry Road resident in New Canaan, Orteig said he's a guy who will run out during an emergency to help his neighbors. It's no surprise that during last March's windstorm, he was out in the streets of New Canaan trying to direct traffic, rescuing animals, and helping out his neighbors who had trees come down in the yard.

"People are often afraid to get involved because they think they are going to screw up," he said. "You can hunker down or you can get involved."

Orteig is one of about 24 New Canaan and Wilton residents who graduated Nov. 13 from the latest class training for the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT for short. In the CERT program, volunteers from local emergency medical services, police and fire departments, and the American Red Cross work together to train residents to safely help during a community emergency. The New Canaan program, which was started in 2003 and has graduated about 200 people in a six-session course, touches on lifesaving skills including CPR and First Aid, traffic control, search and rescue, crime scene preservation and medical triage.

"The most important part of the program is that people are trained in very basic lifesaving procedures so they are ready to help themselves, their families or their neighbors, should something happen and responders can't get there," said Nancy Upton, a New Canaan EMT and executive director of the New Canaan CERT program.

The classes, which started on October 20, were taught by volunteer personnel at venues such as city hall, the fire and police department, EMS, and at the Red Cross on Main Street. Every other class, the group would alternate sites in Wilton and New Canaan. At the end of the class, participants were required to pass a series of practical exams that simulated real-life scenarios.

"I really wanted to see if there was something I could do, but there wasn't a damn thing I could do," Orteig said he recalled about his ordeal in New York City. "This class gave me the chance to learn some lifesaving techniques and get involved with helping the services in NC when they need it. You just feel more important and a part of things when you are part of this."

The CERT program, which now is a federally-funded program under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has its roots from back in 1985 when the Los Angeles Fire Department started to train residents to help emergency responders who are often overwhelmed during major incidents.

Since then, several disasters, including earthquakes in California and Hurricane Katrina have underscored the need for trained civilians who can help with first aid, traffic direction, and other essential duties when police, fire and EMS personnel are tied up.

"You really are in a position so you can take care of yourself in the first few days of a disaster," Upton said. "EMS services would be overwhelmed. You need top be self-sufficient and we are training people to be more better prepared."

The problem is, most often civilian responders, while their heart may be in the right place, they are often not trained in how to deal with a crisis, and that can lead to more casualties. For example, during the 1985 Mexico City, citizen volunteers saved 800 lives, but 100 of the volunteers lost their lives in the process. This led to more efforts nationwide to train volunteers how to respond safely.

The CERT effort took hold, and by 2003, 45 states had CERT programs. Since 2003, New Canaan has run a class every fall, and CERT volunteers in New Canaan have helped out in several town crises, including a search and rescue at Waveny Park in 2008. In that incident, a suicidal young man left his car there and was reported missing. CERT volunteers were dispatched to help state and local police departments search the park. The team has also been dispatched to Pound Ridge, N.Y. to help search for a missing child, and is regularly called out during storms and power outages to help with traffic control and other duties.

"They aren't teaching us firefighting or advanced medicine," Orteig said. "You won't be asked to do more than your limitations. It should give anyone coming in reassurance that if they want to help they can and it will be controlled."

Upton said most volunteers help out with tasks such as manning canteens or making phone calls to senior citizens to check on their well-being during a crisis. It's important to remember, she said, that CERT members are not police officers or firefighters, and don't have the same powers or training as they do. They operate with strict oversight from state officials, and can only be dispatched by certain police and fire officials, and by the first selectman.

"I realized in New York City that at a moment's notice the city can empower or get moving thousands of people," Orteig said. "In towns like New Canaan we don't have those kinds of numbers. If we need the help where are we going to get it?"