Local reserves are ready at the rescue

Courtesy of Wayne Walters

Medical Reserve Corps members Carol McGuire and Calixto Cabrera check on the injured during Operation Thunderbird. The training session last year simulated a fuel tanker running into the tail of a commercial jet, with explosion and fire.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Police officers and firefighters in uniform, wailing sirens and flashing red, blue and yellow lights are what most people probably associate with the scene of a disaster.

But most likely unnoticed are a cadre of volunteers who respond to provide medical services, direct traffic, move equipment, handle communications, manage the human resources required for a prolonged response and do just plain unglamorous tasks.

These volunteers very likely are members of the little-ballyhooed Medical Reserve Corps.

A local group was founded in 2006, Wayne Walters, one of the founders of the Medical Reserve Corps of Southwest Colorado, said in an interview.

The local corps trains for disaster scenarios and provides providing help at major events such as last year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Its 50 members include health professionals, chaplains and interpreters.

Regional units play major roles around the country. If you look at photos from the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, you may notice medical responders in white jackets with blue stripes on the sleeves. Look closely and you’ll see that some are wearing red Medical Reserve Corps ballcaps, Rob Tosatto, director of the civilian volunteer unit of the corps, said in an email last week to colleagues.

The national corps was founded the year after the Sept. 11 attacks to manage an unmanageable number of volunteers.

“There were so many volunteers, solicited and unsolicited, to 9/11 that they became more of a problem than assistance,” Walters said. “It was a big disaster.”

Problems included verifying the credentials of the professionals responding to the crisis. An example was the need for medical professionals to be licensed to practice in New York state, Walters said.

Liability issues such as who was responsible if a responder was injured had to be settled. The management of job assignments also was critical.

The Medical Reserve Corps is a network of local affiliates that operates with volunteer support. Their mission is to strengthen a community’s ability to improve the health and safety of its residents and to respond to emergencies.

The need for immediate response to disasters didn’t end with 9/11. The anthrax mailings and hurricanes, including recent Superstorm Sandy, also tested the ability of the state to protect citizens.

Official agencies in Southwest Colorado aren’t immune to the need for help.

The Medical Reserve Corps of Southwest Colorado plays an important role in public-event management, not only disasters, said Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management.

“Counties are required to prepare for emergencies,” Knowlton said. “The Medical Reserve plans with us for the disaster drills at the (Durango-La Plata County) airport.

“They have a part in large public events, too,” Knowlton said. “They were active during USA Pro Cycling Challenge last year.”

Large-scale events tax ordinary resources, Knowlton said.

“The Medical Reserve is a valuable group,” he said. “They are vital to the community.

Among the more than 50 members are eight physicians, 11 nurses, two mental-health professionals. It also includes pharmacists, dentists and veterinarians. The 27 nonhealth-oriented volunteers include chaplains, office workers, paralegals and interpreters.

The Medical Reserve Corps doesn’t seek volunteers, but builds its team through word of mouth and collaboration with other agencies, Walters said. The local unit serves Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties.

Joy Mathis, a registered nurse and one of the founders of the Medical Reserve Corps in Southwest Colorado, said the group seeks no glory.

“We help quietly and are satisfied with knowing we’ve done good,” Mathis said. “We don’t need a lot of fanfare.”

daler@durangoherald.com

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