When I first heard of the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) a few years ago, I thought it sounded like a branch of the military – something like a medical national guard. In any case, my automatic response was to stay far away. To put it mildly, I’m really not a military or governmental type of person. A year later, someone convinced me to look at it again because I was interested in medical volunteerism. I got as far as the registration page where it appeared I was committing myself to government service, and away I went again.MRC logo

The MRC – Community Based Medical Volunteerism

Skip forward two years, and I am now the Operations Chief and Medical Officer for the Marion County MRC! What happened? Did I develop a virulent case of patriotism? Nope – I simply got past the name and the rampant red, white, and blue, and discovered that the MRC is the single best way for medical people to volunteer to help in their community in times of crisis.  (The registration process, at least in Oregon where it is run by SERV-OR, also changed. It now looks just like as any other credentialing process, without a hint of military, and it runs very smoothly.) By the way, I don’t mean to slight either the military or patriotic Americans. In fact, my emergency work has brought me in contact with more military people than I ever met before, and they are universally great to work with. But there are other potential volunteers out there with my kind of attitude, and it is important for them to realize that MRCs are not military, despite the name. They receive local and federal government support, but ultimately they are community based medical volunteer groups.

National Guard

National Guard

Alexandria MRC

Alexandria MRC

Compare the picture of National Guard and typical MRC – obviously NOT THE SAME!

Fake Physicians Force Forward Fact Review (Just means advance credential verification, but FFFFF is more fun. Try saying it 5 times quickly!)

Why sign up for an MRC? Why not just show up when a disaster occurs and offer to help? Although disasters often bring out the best in a community, they also bring out shysters and con artists, specifically counterfeit doctors and nurses. An emergency manager for Hurricane Andrew told me of four “doctors” who set up a walk-in clinic for emergency care, taking only cash for payment. They were doing a booming business until they were discovered to have no medical training at all. It took police to drive them out of their building. These days, healthcare providers usually need to be pre-credentialed before volunteering in a professional capacity outside their normal practice setting. Just like applying for a job or hospital privileges, license, evidence of training, board certification, etc goes to a local or state agency that verifies the information during leisurely non-disaster times. The registration is for all licensed medical professionals, not just doctors. This includes nurses, pharmacists, EMTs, behavioral health providers, and others. All types of medical volunteers are needed!

South Missouri MRC volunteers responded to the 2011 EF5 Tornado in Joplin.

South Missouri MRC volunteers responded to the 2011 EF5 Tornado in Joplin.

Depending on where they live, medical volunteers might sign-up with a state registry, a local MRC, or both. Instead of just credentialing with the state, I highly recommend joining the local MRC in most communities, although it’s worthwhile learning about their activities before joining.  Some MRCs take a disaster response approach (obviously my favorite), while others do more public health support like vaccinations and health education. Some do both. And some are really not very active as a group – the state of my MRC before I stormed in with a vow to change it. Another great thing is that many MRCs also accept non-medical volunteers – after all, do medical clinics or hospitals only have doctors and nurses? No, and neither should MRCs. So if you are interested in learning how to help in a disaster medical setting, even if you are not medical, see if your local MRC has a role for you! Some programs even have youth members. Here is the site where you can find your local MRCs. (http://www.medicalreservecorps.gov/FindMRC)

It’s The Training

Teen Emergency Response Group from Sacramento, California

Teen Emergency Response Group from Sacramento, California


Teen Emergency Response Team “victims” in disaster exercise.

What do you get out of joining the MRC? It’s the training, stupid! With rare exceptions, most healthcare professionals have never come within miles of a disaster. That doesn’t mean they can’t help in an emergency, but it will be a lot easier for both them and the people around them if a little about disaster response is learned ahead of times. For example, disaster response is organized according to something called the incident command system (a quasi-military approach that I actually embrace whole-heartily – see my blog post from 11-5-12 – Who’s In Charge Here? The Incident Command System.). Disaster sites quickly become chaotic, unsafe, and inefficient without structure, so we make everyone in MRC learn a little incident command to see how they fit in the system. What about deciding which patients need care most urgently, otherwise known as triage? What about advanced first aid skills? Most physicians I know have not put a bandage or splint on in years – that’s we have nurses and techs for! In responding to a disaster, advanced first aid needs abound, and I for one would like to practice a bit ahead of time. Even the types of injuries and diseases in a disaster may be different than what health care professionals are used to, but basic skills learned in school training programs come back to mind with just a little review.

Girls (and Boys and Men and Women) Just Wanna Have Fun

To a lot of health professionals, MRC  seems like a lot of work without much reward, or much chance of using these skills if a disaster doesn’t occur.  So a good MRC should make participation and training enjoyable enough that you want to take part even if you are never deployed. I am at a national MRC leadership course this week, picking up some ideas on how I can turn our Marion County MRC into an active, instructive  and most importantly, fun group to belong to, while we also learn to be an independent medical team to help with disaster site treatment, hospital overflow, medical care in shelters, or wherever else we’re needed. Now I just need volunteers! If you live near Salem, Oregon, let me know. If not, I am sure your local MRC needs you just as badly as I do. I’ll leave you with a link to an amazing MRC exercise done near Santa Barbara last year. It was called Operation MRC Round-up, where 170 people went to the mountains for 36 hours of living in an “austere” environment, learning disaster skills, and treating a rodeo stampede disaster, complete with impressive wounds. They also partied with a band and had a great time together in the evening after the 12 hour training for the day was done. Now that’s my idea of an MRC!

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund

  1. The title reflects our thinking at the Maui County Health Volunteers, a Medical Reserve Corps unit in Hawaii. MCHV doesn’t sound military in nature, and going with Health instead of Medical opens the door to more individuals without a medical background.

    Well done with the blog.

    • disasterdoc says:

      I like your thinking. I have added possible renaming/rebranding to the things our unit should address this year, as part of our total reorganization. I didn’t realize until this leadership conference that groups could choose names that didn’t include MRC. Since your name is your major recruitment tool, I think it could really matter. I would love to hear from other organizations that have rethought their names!

  2. […] and volunteer disaster response groups, including Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), and Red Cross generally take PFA training. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers a 6 […]

  3. […] registry (credentialing before the need arises).  Read my blog posts on CERT training and the Medical Reserve Corps for other opportunities to volunteer. Extra staff needed for medical surge must come from […]

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