State seeks volunteers for future disaster duty
By Staff and wire reports, April 4, 2007
Last updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2007 3:20 PM EDT
HARRISBURG — The state Health Department wants to know who would be willing to lend a hand in the event of a statewide emergency as it joins a nationwide effort to establish a registry of potential volunteers.
The department on Tuesday unveiled the State Emergency Registry of Volunteers in Pennsylvania, or SERVPA, during a news conference on emergency preparedness. The online registry will help the state build a database of volunteers with a wide range of backgrounds — including doctors, nurses, contractors and law enforcement — who can be mobilized when disaster strikes, Health Secretary Dr. Calvin B. Johnson said.
“If you have a skill or service to provide that may well be needed in the event of a disaster... we would love to have you be a part of it,” Johnson said.
The system is intended primarily for the registration of health care professionals, but states have the option of broadening their volunteer bases, Wolfson said. At least 24 other states have established registries, including Florida, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey, he said.
The federal government’s focus on health professionals is a tip-off, according to Karen Kirk — a member of a committee organized by Cumberland County Emergency Services to prepare for the potential of an Avian flu pandemic.
“It’s a subtle point, but you’ve hit the nail on the head if you think this is aimed at Avian flu,” Kirk says. She contends there are other subtle indicators that Avian flu is a real threat.
Kirk says she saw a poster in a drug store advertising “normal tips” for avoiding seasonal flu. At the bottom of the poster, in small print, was a Web site for information on Avian flu pandemic. Kirk says larger packages of products like rice, flour and sugar are appearing on grocery store shelves — another subtle hint, she says.
“Everyone is being careful not to cause a panic,” Kirk says. But she believes official sources must become more aggressive in educating the public about the difference between seasonal flu and pandemic flu, and increasing public awareness of the potential for disaster.
Checking in advance
Tom Moriarty, another member of the county committee, has a different perspective.
He says conditions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 fuel the volunteer registry effort as a tool for any disaster.
He says the goal is to line up people with specific backgrounds who may not be retired or no longer working in their profession.
“After Katrina, doctors and nurses came to the disaster area, but they were not allowed to help because they weren’t certified in that place,” Moriarty says. “Doing this in advance will create a roster of professionals. The advance training will be to identify what a large-scale disaster will look like. How things will be handled differently if you have 10,000 people who have to be treated quickly.”
All 50 states are developing statewide volunteer registries under legislation passed by Congress in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the anthrax attacks that followed. The federal government is spending about $10 million on the program, dividing the money about evenly among all the states.
“There was such an outpouring of people that wanted to help, they said, ‘We really need a way of tracking them,”’ said Marc Wolfson, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Pennsylvania’s online registration takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Registrants are asked whether they belong to or would like to join medical-assistance teams, how far they are willing to travel, and their occupations.
“We’d like to get people in there ahead of time, so we can check their credentials, we can do background checks, and we can even provide them with some advanced training ... so they’re prepared to deploy,” said Meghan Treber, director of the state Office of Public Health Preparedness.
Evaluating volunteers’ credentials is a critical component of the program, Johnson said. He noted that in situations such as the terrorist attacks and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, emergency responders sometimes had difficulty accepting help from people who simply arrived on the scene.
“Without (prior) knowledge of their skills, of their legitimacy as health-care providers or other skills, it’s hard to use them as effectively and appropriately as possible,” Johnson said. “Preparation for that in this kind of registry eliminates that kind of confusion.”