The Medical Reserve Corps Helps Local Health Departments Fill a Critical Need

On this National Day of Service and Remembrance, NACCHO recognizes the important work of the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), a national network of volunteers trained to respond to disasters and emergencies and support the health of their communities. The need for the MRC became apparent after 9/11 when thousands of medical and public health professionals, eager to volunteer in support of emergency relief activities, were turned away because there was no way to identify and manage these spontaneous volunteers. The formation of the MRC in 2002 has since provided a way to recruit, train, and activate volunteers to respond to community health needs, disasters, and emergencies. Dave Nichols, CEM, Medical Reserve & Workforce Deployment Manager, Preparedness Section, Public Heath – Seattle & King County, contributed the following article to the Summer 2014 issue of NACCHO Exchange. To read the entire issue, download the newsletter from NACCHO’s online bookstore.

Hundreds of MRC volunteers train at the 2013 Austere Medical Deployment exercise in California

A recent report by the Corporation for National and Community Service stated that one in four Americans volunteers each year, which amounts to an estimated 64.5 million people volunteering a total of 7.9 billion hours each year. As public health budgets shrink, one thing that remains is the volunteer spirit, as evidenced in 2013 by Tropical Storm Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing and in 2014 by the Oso/SR530 landslide in Washington State. In the Oso landslide, 80 volunteers from the Snohomish County (WA) MRC worked over 2,000 hours in the county emergency call center, provided administrative support in the emergency operations center, supported the mental health of responders, and supported the Medical Examiner’s office to contact families.

Like most local health departments (LHDs), Public Health – Seattle & King County (King County) faces shrinking budgets, competing projects, and a much larger list of things it would like to do to support the community than it has capacity to complete. MRC units can help LHDs to fill those gaps. The MRC is a national network of over 200,000 volunteers, organized locally to improve the health and safety of their communities. MRC units prepare for and respond to natural disasters and emergencies affecting public health, such as disease outbreaks, and help with community activities that promote healthy habits.

LHDs can look for meaningful work for MRC volunteers by considering what internal programs need help to accomplish their missions without overstepping and supplanting an employee. For example, the Snohomish County MRC assists King County with a wide range of activities. MRC volunteers average about 200 hours per month working in the community serving under-insured and uninsured citizens. MRC volunteers work in two homeless communities and one food bank, providing foot care, wound care, and medical education and referrals. Depending on the size of the facility, two to six nurses help volunteer registered emergency workers with set up and traffic control. Volunteers also support response exercises, mass vaccination/dispensing, set up and operation of an alternate care facility, and Affordable Care Act sign-ups.

Another exciting use of volunteers is engagement of amateur (ham) radio volunteers who help to build rally points. The Seattle-King County area is 2,000 square miles, with a population just under two million. With such a large area to cover, King County is concerned with how to communicate with volunteers and employees during a catastrophic event. Ham radio operators scout locations that have good communications paths and are centrally located. The LHD can then pre-identify and pre-notify volunteers and employees that, if communication channels go down, a radio link might be available at rally points.

LHDs first need to recruit and train potential volunteers, keeping the following recommendations in mind:

  • Obtain support from LHD leadership and staff;
  • Set reasonable recruiting goals; for example, rather than arbitrarily aiming to recruit 1,000 volunteers, the LHD should determine how many it can successfully process and manage;
  • Set high, yet realistic, standards and goals and stick to them;
  • Be clear about expectations for volunteers by letting them know what will or will not happen;
  • Avoid enrollment caps—imagine telling potential volunteers they are not needed only to ask them for help later during an emergency; and
  • Remember that in today’s mobile society, people come and go. If an LHD has too many volunteers, it can change the frequency of orientations and be much more selective and focused in recruitment. King County has stopped outside advertising and is still taking in 30–40 new volunteers every other month.

Knowing what the LHD is looking for in volunteers will help the agency think about what it wants and guide it on where to look. Groups to consider for volunteer recruitment include the following:

  • Colleges and Universities—Because most medically licensed volunteers are graduates, turn to local educational institutions for potential recruits. Consider not just classes and programs but student groups too. For example, an LHD can increase its language and cultural diversity by looking on campuses for cultural/international organizations.
  • Churches—Large churches may contain a cross-section of people with different skills, providing a mix of licensed and support volunteers.
  • Fraternal Organizations—Fraternal organizations (Rotary, Lions Club, etc.) help their community and have many assets LHDs may need in an emergency.
  • Emergency Response Groups—Groups such as CERT, American Red Cross, and Salvation Army can provide cross-pollination for training because such groups might not typically respond to the same types of events that LHDs respond to.
  • Private Sector—Recent research backs up the growing trend toward generous volunteer time-off policies. According to the 2013 Employee Benefits report by the Society for Human Resource Management, 20 percent of companies offer time off to their employees for volunteering.
  • Baby Boomers—The number of volunteers aged 65 and older in the United States is expected to increase to over 13 million by 2020. Baby boomers in general are retiring at a younger, more active age, with time and income to do what they want. They bring amazing skills that can be assets in all phases of a volunteer program.

Volunteers might be more inclined to stay with the LHD if the LHD does a few simple things:

  • Provide positive training and experiences;
  • Allow volunteers to help; being part of the solution makes volunteers feel valued and like they are making a difference;
  • Be ready for the volunteers; volunteers may feel unvalued if the LHD is scrambling to prepare for a project when the volunteers arrive;
  • Assign work in teams; shared experience and support will enable friendships to grow, allowing people to work better together and keep each other informed; and
  • Thank the volunteers, which is the most important and easiest thing to do; remember, volunteers do not get a paycheck, just satisfaction and thanks from the LHD and community.

Managing many volunteers takes time and preparation, so it may seem counterintuitive that having volunteers will make a health official’s job easier. However, volunteers bring varied skills and experiences that might not be immediately apparent. By asking volunteers what they did in their last job (or current job), the LHD might discover that a volunteer was a registered nurse or project manager. Some of King County’s best projects originated from ideas provided by volunteers who were then happy to help plan and run a new initiative. Successful volunteer partnerships rely on equal contributions from LHD staff and MRC volunteers.

In closing, LHDs have a big job to do that covers many areas of the community, and no LHD has enough staff to do it all. LHDs must support volunteer managers and look at volunteers as a resource. MRC volunteers are committed to improving the health, safety, and resilience of their communities. LHDs can use such valuable volunteers to advance the health of their communities, now and in times of disaster.

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