Volunteering Throughout the Disaster Cycle: Insights from the Medical Reserve Corps

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MRC volunteers reviewing supply lists

Volunteering with the Medical Reserve Corps
One of the strongest threads woven into the fabric of American culture is that of volunteer service. When someone is in need, we ask what can be done to help. This is never more evident than during a time of disaster. As we recognize September as National Preparedness Month, it is important to note that being involved in preparing your community for disaster puts you in the best position to help during a disaster as well as insure your county, city, or town is able to quickly recover and regain its footing.

MRC volunteer taking a woman's blood pressureThe Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) was founded in 2002, in response to the attacks of September 11th and the Anthrax attacks that followed. Currently, there are close to 1,000 MRC units across the United States and its territories with more than 204,000 volunteers. This national network of community-based volunteers is committed to improving the health and safety of all communities through the action of volunteers from medical and public health professions, as well as that of other community members dedicated to strengthening local public health systems, improving response capabilities, and building community resilience.

Colorado MRC Volunteers Respond
Late June 2012 brought intense wildfires to Colorado. The Medical Reserve Corps of El Paso County, CO (MRCEPC) was called to respond. Given the unit’s established integration into the county emergency management plans and amongst its partnerships, as well as its involvement in preparedness exercises, the unit and its volunteers were not only recognized, but valued and trusted as a capable response asset.

The MRC of El Paso County successfully assisted their community during the Waldo Canyon Fire when 32,000 Colorado Springs and El Paso County residents were evacuated.  Having a close working relationship with the City of Colorado Springs Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the El Paso County OEM, El Paso County Public Health and the Pikes Peak American Red Cross before the fires occurred truly made a difference for the MRC unit to prove effective.

In 2011, the MRCECP participated in an exercise series called “Up in Smoke Which allowed MRC units to work out the kinks of responding to a major wildfire before an event happened.

MRCEPC volunteers supported the response efforts to the Waldo Canyon Fire, donating 1,644 hours of their time and expertise. Of those hours, MRCEPC provided:

  • 552 hours of medical and behavioral health support at four mass care shelters;
  • 493 hours of behavioral health support at town hall meetings, re-entry into the impact area and FEMA assessments of the impact area; and
  • 599 hours coordinating with other agencies, attending briefings to provide support, volunteer management and preparing self, family and work to deploy.

MRC volunteers working on a computerOf the experience, unit leader Frankie Gales said, “Volunteers wanted to make a difference, and they left each shift knowing they did just that.”

There is no clear end to a disaster as large as the Waldo Canyon Fire. Rather, a continuum exists, where the recovery continues long after the last of the fire is extinguished. The MRCEPC is still playing a role through the growth of a partnership with AspenPointe. Now, they are providing mental health counseling and helping to restore peace of mind to those affected by the trauma of the large scale fires.

According to Frankie Gales, “After a traumatic event, you may have a wide range of normal responses. These responses can be physical reactions such as headaches, backaches, stomach aches, change in sleep patterns and appetite or they can be emotional reactions such as fear and or anxiety, irritability, restlessness, outbursts of anger, nightmares or diminished interest in everyday activities or depression.” The MRC, in its new role with AspenPointe, a private company, is now helping to address these responses as part of the recovery.

Not everything with the response went smoothly. The MRCEPC leadership was faced with many personnel challenges during the Waldo Canyon Fire, as well. Two days before the fire, the Program Director of 10 years retired, and the new director was on the job only two days. Additionally, MRCEPC Coordinator Frankie Gales was in North Dakota dealing with a family emergency, and her husband had to evacuate their home alone. The Health Department’s Medical Director also had to evacuate her home. These obstacles did not stop the MRCEPC from responding. Having exercised with other organizations on this exact scenario and having a process in place allowed MRCEPC to be on “standby” within hours of the fire starting, and when MRCEPC received the call to activate, volunteers were in place within 45 minutes.

The greatest lesson learned was that preparing is of the utmost importance if the desired outcome is a successful response and eventual recovery. In addition, the partnerships and integration with the key players in emergency management, public health, and with first responders allowed the MRC to be trusted and valued. As recognized, credentialed, and trained volunteers, those in the MRCEPC were able to make a powerful, personal, and profound impact on the response to the overwhelming wildfires.

MRC logoBecome Involved
To make a difference in your hometown’s safety, do not wait for disaster to strike. Rather, find a way to promote the health and resilience of your neighborhood, town, city, or county through volunteering. Everyone has something to offer – whether medically trained or not.

Volunteering can give the great satisfaction of helping others. For many individuals, volunteering gives them a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. It helps to broaden their social networks, which in turn yields many positive effects. Volunteering provides opportunities for social interaction with fellow volunteers while supporting an important activity in the community. Interacting with others with a common interest in service is also a great way to create new relationships.

Volunteering can have a significant positive effect on your personal health. Research presented by the Corporation for National and Community Service shows a strong relationship between volunteering and health: those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer. See The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research for more information (http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/volunteering/benefits.asp).

Healthier communities before a disaster will be better able to handle, respond, and recover from a major crisis, no matter the cause. Be a part of the solution. Visit the Medical Reserve Corps Web site (www.medicalreservecorps.gov) to learn more and locate the unit nearest you.

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2 comments on “Volunteering Throughout the Disaster Cycle: Insights from the Medical Reserve Corps”

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    The MRC volunteers are helping to keep our nation healthy safe and prepared. For over ten years this has been our goal.

    The MRC seems to be a good idea, and it seems to be doing some good. I could not say the same of its predecessor, the Commissioned Corps Readiness Force. I was first “deployed” for back-up the night of “Y2K,” and again at Reagan’s funeral, in Our Nation’s Capital, June-2004. [Rumor had it that the local DMAT declined to deploy for that event.] What I learned from making my 3-block walk to the Pentagon on the morning of 9/11 (self-deployed), the aftermath week, and the subsequent evolution of the CCRF, is that there really is a Golden Hour. Your local resources can get overwhelmed, but it does no good to load up the USNS Comfort in Baltimore Harbor with doctors and nurses, if what NYC needs now is morticians. After that Golden Hour (and usually during it), there is just no substitute for communication. Don’t just do something, stupid! Stand there! Better to get on the phone (or radio having compatible frequencies). Unless what you have practiced for a response is exactly what is called for (e.g., CPR, water-on-the-fire), better to stop where you are and communicate with someone else. Maybe you need their help, maybe they need yours. But if you don’t/can’t talk to them, the things you do will be even later and more out of step than they already were.
    Thank goodness, the powers-that-be gave up on the CCRF. Eventually, we do learn from experience, even if by multiple repetitions. I am very glad to see dedicated people making a difference. Keep on communicating!

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Page last reviewed: March 20, 2015
Page last updated: March 20, 2015