The e-mails started on Friday. The director of my home county’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) sent out a request that all volunteers report their status for the upcoming hurricane. Would we be available in the event that Hurricane Sandy hit Northern Virginia? As the news reports came in and bloggers up and down the eastern seaboard reported what was going on, I couldn’t help but feel like I should be down there. I’ve spent most of my life on the East Coast; many friends and family members were hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass. Thankfully, everyone I know pulled through safely.
Before I got involved in public health, my mental image of disaster response was a mish-mash of government response and spontaneous volunteers. The images of Hurricane Katrina on TV showed FEMA agents and uniformed National Guardsmen in one clip and college students and church groups in another. However, there is a middle ground – organized groups of people who train to specifically respond to disasters on a volunteer basis. The category of is a broad, and it includes many EMTs, firefighters, response teams, and search and rescue teams that have day jobs and work alongside their full-time colleagues. For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on the groups that anyone can join regardless of experience.
Medical Reserve Corps (MRC)
Don’t let the name fool you; you don’t need to be a doctor to join the Medical Reserve Corps. I joined the MRC less than a year after I received my bachelor’s degree, and they provided training in incident command (communications and chain of command during disasters), first aid, and a variety of other topics, such as Epidemiology, Anthrax protocols, and Nuclear/Radiological Response. The MRC was established under the Surgeon General in the wake of 9/11, and its primary focus is on public health. Volunteer opportunities include working in vaccine clinics and conducting health screenings in addition to disaster response.
Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)
The CERT program was originally designed by the Los Angeles Fire Department. Faced with the danger of earthquakes, they wanted to train citizens to be able to safely take care of themselves, their families, and their neighbors if help was delayed. The program has since been adopted by the federal government and has expanded nationwide. CERTs are typically designed with the needs of the community in mind. For example, I’ve seen CERTs in more rural areas hold training on livestock handling and evacuation in a disaster. CERTs in urban areas often include trainings on concerns in high-density areas, like terrorism and urban search and rescue. Within CERT, volunteer opportunities center around providing support to professional responders in the event of a disaster.
American Red Cross (ARC)
I would be willing to bet that the majority of people think of the Red Cross when they’re considering where to donate in the event of an emergency. The ARC (the American branch of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) conducts emergency relief work and blood drives within the US. Volunteer opportunities with the Red Cross are highly varied. Volunteers can teach classes on disaster preparedness, help run blood drives, assist with response in a disaster, and engage people through social media, among many other things.
While CERT and MRC typically train volunteers ahead of time, the Red Cross does take spontaneous volunteers in the event of a disaster. If you are in an area that has been affected and want to help, or if you want to assist with a blood drive in your area, call your local Red Cross to find out how to become a volunteer.
Hurricane Sandy: What Can You Do?
If you want to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross has requested donations of money and blood. Call your local Red Cross chapter to find out if they need volunteers. Please do not go to the scene of a disaster on your own, as you could be putting yourself and other responders at risk. Contact your local MRC or CERT, and find out how to get trained in the event that a disaster occurs in your area.