In the summer of 2012, Colorado was on fire. Literally. Many acupuncturists from around the state, especially those who had received disaster response training through Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB), wanted to help those affected by the fires as well as the first responders and tireless state and local officials, with the healing and stress-relief of acupuncture. AWB's main office referred calls from these would-be volunteers to its Colorado-based board of directors member, Randi Savage (L.Ac., Boulder).
That summer, Randi helped acupuncture volunteers set up disaster-relief clinics in both Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. Hundreds of stress-reduction treatments were given in both locations, but volunteers were frustrated by the knowledge that we could have done more if we had more access and acceptance by the authorities managing the overall disaster response. During the floods in Boulder County in September 2013, local acupuncturists had the same desire to respond, but similar types of difficulties arose. Despite the obstacles, Randi and others worked with the Office of Emergency Management, Incident Command staff, and FEMA to set-up several acupuncture clinics. For the first time, acupuncture volunteers were able to treat people inside a FEMA Flood Recovery Center in Longmont, Colo., as well as inside the Incident Command and Office of Emergency Management.
The volunteer response for the Boulder flood was strong, steady, and truly a group effort. With key support from Valerie Hobbs at Southwest Acupuncture College, who was a tireless volunteer during this work, and so many others in the larger acupuncture community (AWB, Blue Poppy, ITEA, and more than a score of area practitioners), we treated more than 1,500 people in one month.
After the floods, Randi continued to work with several agencies within Boulder County to keep acupuncture treatment available to those recovering from the flood. She continues to develop new relationships within the Boulder County Disaster Response Teams as well as foster new ones within Boulder County and the state. It was the Boulder flood experience and her ongoing involvement with the above groups that led her to a new conclusion about how acupuncturists could serve more effectively. What we needed in order to be effective volunteers in disaster situations was a state-wide, acupuncture-specific, and federally-approved Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) of our own.
What is the Medical Reserve Corps?
MRC is an organization created during the George W. Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina and the chaotic and ineffective disaster response system that emergency brought to light. The mandate of the MRC program was to find a way to coordinate local, state, and national disaster response into a faster, more effective and better organized whole. The idea was to recruit and train teams of healthcare providers of all types (both retired and still working) to work within an organized disaster-response structure, but within their own communities. These trained MRC groups could then respond quickly to any disaster in any county or state, knowing how to work effectively within an organized state or federal chain-of-command for the most effective outcomes for people affected by the event.
During the Boulder floods, Randi's complex and often-frustrating work included coordination with various acupuncture groups, as well as dealing with the needs and concerns of local, county, state, and federal groups and officials. There was acceptance for acupuncture in some quarters, but legal and liability concerns in others. For example, those overseeing the shelters did not see how acupuncture could be offered in the shelters. The end result was that many people who could have benefited from acupuncture were unable to receive it and most did not even know it was available.
Finally, it was during a conversation between Randi Savage and Koral O'Brien from the State Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response that the idea emerged: what we needed to do to avoid these problems in the future was create our own, acupuncture-specific, approved MRC group for Colorado. Some quick email-based polling on whether or not local L.Ac.s would support such an effort got a very positive response. Then, with a list of people who would have to sign-off on this idea, Randi had phone interviews with several officials and filed the required application for Colorado to have the first ever Acupuncture Medical Reserve Corps.
Contacting the federal MRC office, Randi learned that others had tried this before her and their applications had been denied. But this time, the Director of MRCs at the federal level, Captain Robert J. Tosatto, signed off on the application. This is the first state where acupuncturists will have the opportunity to serve during disasters and emergencies within the government authorized command and control structure.
As the person who has been at the center of these efforts for over two years, Randi said: "It is important for us to be part of the government system if we want to be really effective at serving the public in these times of need. In our early efforts to respond, we struggled to find places to set up our clinics, no one knew what to do with us, and even if they liked the acupuncture itself, we were not really accepted as part of the overall response team. We now have real relationships inside the Boulder County Sheriff's office, the fire department, the Office of Emergency Management and 911 services. It's these relationships that got us our approval from the federal office. This is a huge opportunity for us, working together, to present ourselves as professional healthcare providers and be able to serve as many people as possible in these situations. If we get this right, our work will also be an example and template for other groups in other states to use to create their own MRCs. It's really an awesome responsibility, but very exciting! We have until August 2014 to show Captain Tossato that we can create and sustain an all-acupuncture MRC in Colorado. If we are able to show this, the national MRC office may consider allowing other units from other states to organize, and allowing us to be the model for the process."
Colorado's fledgling Acu-MRC has work to do. Initially, federally-mandated training programs for new L.Ac. volunteers must be developed. These include courses on understanding disaster response procedures at the federal, state and local level as well as how to actually set up a legal disaster response acupuncture clinic in any part of the state for any disaster or emergency. This curriculum is being developed with a schedule of courses over the coming year. Other work for the remainder of 2014 will be to create and offer this curriculum, as well as to recruit and train new volunteer MRC members and to create an online information, support and contact hub for trainings, supplies, and as a clearing house during an actual disaster response.
In addition to the incredible opportunity to serve fellow citizens doing something we love in a time of need, participation as an MRC volunteer is an excellent way to get the word out about the value of acupuncture in our communities all over the state and in a very real way. It is one of the most legitimate and valuable ways to market our practices. Organizers hope that many acupuncturists from all over Colorado will want to participate in this amazing opportunity to serve.