Beyond a descent into fire: A look into Berkeley’s disaster relief clubs

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As California’s fire season approaches, one club in Berkeley is preparing for possible deployment to provide medical assistance in areas affected by wildfires. The Berkeley Medical Reserve Corps, or BMRC, is the Berkeley branch of the federal Medical Reserve Corps, an organization which deploys emergency medical technicians to sites of major national natural disasters.

“Our specific MRC is unique, because we’re all students, and so we only deploy out on a shift-by-shift basis, because people are still dealing with midterms, classes and other life stuff,” said BMRC director Madison Silzle.

Last year, while most students were headed home for an extended Thanksgiving break due to poor air quality during the Camp Fire, students from the BMRC set out to help staff an emergency shelter in Butte County.

During their shifts at the shelters, students performed wellness checks on individuals, helped administer medications and pooled resources with local pharmacies to help find medications lost in the fire.

“People have prescriptions, and when those get lost in a fire, it’s really kind of weird and hard to have to fill those prescriptions,” said Atrey Khoche, BMRC director of external affairs. Khoche was among those deployed to the shelter in Butte County last year.

Silzle, who has been sent to shelters every year for the past three years, stressed that in addition to physical assessments, social work is a major part of emergency deployment.

“A lot of people have lost their homes. They might have lost animals or don’t know where their family members are,” Silzle said. She emphasized the importance of “just being someone people can vent or relay their emotions to.”

In addition to deploying people to help in areas directly impacted by fires, the BMRC — along with its sister organization, the Berkeley Disaster Team, or BDT — is planning a campaign to disseminate information about air quality and respiratory safety in Berkeley in case air quality dips again this year during fire season. Their preparations take into account the false information spread in 2018 about N95 masks and their effectiveness.

“A lot of the information that was being relayed to the public was inaccurate and not everyone should have been wearing an N95 (mask),” Silzle said. She then went on to explain that N95 masks might actually exacerbate issues for people who have existing respiratory problems. On top of this, the public was not taught how to properly put on the masks.

This public health outreach campaign is just one of the BMRC’s numerous programs to educate members of the UC Berkeley community about emergency situations. The BMRC also provides low-cost CPR classes, serves as standby emergency responders at campus events and plans to stage a campuswide drill during the Great California ShakeOut, a national earthquake preparedness event.

Together, the BDT and BMRC stage a mass casualty incident drill each semester, where students simulate either an earthquake or mass shooting. Complete with wounded actors doused in fake blood, BMRC and BDT members run through the scenario from triage to transport. In other words, they simulate ranking the severity of injuries and practice organizing people for transportation to a hospital pickup zone or “casualty collection point.” According to Khoche, this drill entails the simulation of injuries that could be sustained during situations such as earthquakes and mass shootings — broken bones, heavy bleeding or busted arteries to name a few.

Since its founding in 2013, the BMRC has thankfully not needed to put these skills into action during an emergency event. The BDT was, however, deployed to help during the violent protests which erupted when far-right media figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos came to campus to speak in 2017.

“The club was activated, and they helped staff the emergency operation center,” said Mindy Dai, BDT deputy director. “BDT members were helping monitor the situation. On social media, they helped post updates to students for areas to avoid.”

The BDT was activated instead of the BMRC in this situation because of the BDT’s focus on all nonmedical aspects of disaster preparedness and mobilization. As is the case with the BMRC, actual deployment is only one aspect of the BDT. The BDT provides various emergency preparedness trainings to its members and has a major focus on public outreach concerning nonmedical disaster preparedness, such as presentations on disaster safety to campus-affiliated organizations like the International House, frats and sororities.

Both the BDT and BMRC serve UC Berkeley as sources for education about emergency training, helping fellow students prepare to take action in the event of a mass emergency on campus.

“We want to empower community members to help themselves,” Dai said.

Contact Hannah Johansson at [email protected].