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January 18
Prepared to Serve: Medical Reserve Corps

Author: CAPT Robert J. Tosatto, Director, Division of the Civilian Volunteer Medical Reserve Corps

On the third Monday of January, we honor the legacy, heroism, and patriotism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the MLK Day of Service. On this day, we pause to honor what he gave to his country through his words and actions. Now, we also pause and come together to give of ourselves and to improve our communities. As part of a community that is interested in emergency preparedness and response, you may wonder how your talents could serve your town, city, or county. The Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) is a national network of locally based volunteers, organized and committed to strengthening public health, improving emergency response capabilities, and building the resiliency of their communities. The MRC offers one important way to serve. This means that you can volunteer in your area to make strides to improving its’ capabilities and capacities – while using your talents in the medical, public health, emergency management, or other fields.

The MRC network is supported by the Division of the Civilian Volunteer Medical Reserve Corps in the Office of the Surgeon General, and currently includes more than 206,000 volunteers in almost 1,000 units nationwide. These volunteers come from all walks of life, and have a variety of skills, experiences, and backgrounds to contribute, but they share a common goal and desire to strengthen the community through their selfless service. The volunteers are identified, credentialed, screened, trained and begin their service before a disaster strikes so that they are ready and able to serve when needed. Whether involved in diabetes detection clinics; educational classes on family preparedness; drive-thru influenza vaccinations; first aid and CPR training; table top exercises; or response to an emergency incident, the MRC is integrated into the local health, preparedness and response structure.

MRC units and volunteers have shown their value time and again. Since its inception in 2002 following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed, MRC volunteers have been giving selflessly to protect, prepare, and respond to many types of hazards. For example, when over 250 MRC volunteers supported the Boston Marathon, most of them assumed that they would just need to provide routine care to runners and spectators. Some MRC volunteers were there as a part of the BAA Injured Runner Tracking Team at the finish line, while others worked in first aid stations and assisted with HAM radio operations along the course. The nature of their mission changed in an instant when two improvised explosive devices detonated near the Boston Marathon finish line. Following the explosions, some of them saw blast injuries, severe burns and traumatically amputated limbs. While they certainly did not expect the explosions, they were prepared and capable of delivering life-saving first aid and helping to transport the injured. After the initial response, MRC volunteers also assisted in staffing shelters for stranded runners and providing mental health services to those affected. What at first seemed to be another day at the race, turned into a rush to save lives and support those in need. The MRC unit leaders’, the MRC volunteers’, and the other responders’ actions that day clearly indicate a high level of training and personal resiliency, in the face of obvious uncertainty and upheaval.

MRC volunteers serve a vital role in the response to natural disasters as well. During Hurricane Sandy, more than 150 MRC units reported preparedness and response activities related to this storm. Some units supported general, functional, or special needs shelters, often alongside partners from the American Red Cross. Units also provided health education, emergency communications support, and surge staffing to local hospitals, emergency management agencies, and public health departments. These volunteers donated more than 35,000 hours of service, and many other units within the affected regions reported that they had more volunteers who were ready and willing to assist if needed. Additionally, some units not affected by Hurricane Sandy used it as an opportunity to perform call-down and notification drills as part of their preparedness planning.

MRC units have also played an important role in preventing the spread of pandemic influenza. MRC units work with their local public health officials and plan on ways that they can best serve should a pandemic strike their local communities. These plans were put in action in the spring of 2009. As cases of H1N1 Influenza began spreading across the United States, MRC units rapidly mobilized to meet their communities’ needs. Almost 50,000 volunteers in 600 MRC units (approximately 70% of all MRC units) assisted in over 2,500 H1N1-related activities in 2009-2010. Hundreds of thousands of Americans received their H1N1 immunizations, and many more learned about flu prevention and care, from MRC volunteers.

I urge you to consider this important thought from Dr. King, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'” No matter where or in what capacity you volunteer, it will provide a powerful experience for you and a tremendous benefit for those you serve. I encourage you to gather your friends, family, colleagues and neighbors in a shared mission to improve the lives of those around you. Each person has something to give, and every community has a person, group, or issue in need of help.

To find contact information for your local Medical Reserve Corps – to volunteer, partner, or promote – visit www.medicalreservecorps.gov and search by your city or zip code. You can also connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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