Emergency Reserve Corps training offered at Sacred Heart University

Sacred Heart University Clinical Assistant Nursing Professor Kim Foito conducts an Emergency Reserve Corps training session.

Sacred Heart University Clinical Assistant Nursing Professor Kim Foito conducts an Emergency Reserve Corps training session.

So far, more than 130 Sacred Heart University students, faculty and staff have received the comprehensive disaster training needed to quickly and effectively help the community should a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or a manmade one like 9/11 occur.

Additional Sacred Heart University Emergency Reserve Corps (ERC) training sessions will take place this year to help ensure skilled and knowledgeable volunteers are available to provide nonemergency support and staffing in community shelters, health clinics, communications centers and an array of other areas where “there are never enough hands after a disaster,” said Linda Strong, ERC program director, associate professor and director of SHU’s College of Health Professions’ RN to BSN program.

“There is such a great need for help when a disaster occurs, and people are so willing to help,” Strong said. “But what’s become clear is that for the fastest, most effective and safest relief to be delivered, those delivering it need to be properly prepared and trained. The volunteer members of Sacred Heart’s ERC will have the needed training and skills.”

Sacred Heart faculty and staff worked with community partners to design not just how the ERC would be structured and implemented, but what content and curriculum would be used to teach volunteers. Funded by the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management & Homeland Security, the program is an outgrowth of the SHU College of Health Professions’ Center for Community Health & Wellness.

“It was really after Hurricane Katrina that those of us involved in disaster relief in Connecticut started asking each other ‘How can we better prepare ourselves?’ ‘What should a local disaster corps look like?’ ” Strong said. “Then we at Sacred Heart started asking, ‘How can we best help?’ ‘How can we use our faculty, staff and students to best help others here at home and possibly beyond?’ ”

The result was Sacred Heart’s ERC — a comprehensive program that has volunteers working with health departments and other agencies in the 16 Southern Fairfield County towns that run from Greenwich to Stratford — Connecticut’s Homeland Security Region 1 — as well as providing much-needed relief in towns like Bridgeport, Westport and Weston, where community-based disaster response teams already exist.

The ERC consists of three teams:

Medical Reserve Corps — licensed health-care professionals or students trained to work in locations like hospitals, clinics and out in the community to assist with the delivery of medical and preventive care, health education, disease detection and vaccinations, and to respond to mass casualties.

Community Emergency Response Team — volunteers trained to assist firefighters, police officers and other first responders when catastrophic events “overtax the ability” of available resources. Team members work closely with these and other agencies to provide essential communications, assist with shelter operations, help organize community events and more.

State Animal Response Team — sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association, team members will be first responders when a community emergency threatens the life of animals. Responsibilities include assessing veterinary needs and providing appropriate field care when other resources are overwhelmed.

Together, these teams make the Sacred Heart ERC the most comprehensive university-based program of its kind in the state, said Sacred Heart Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning Director Matthew Kaye. Volunteers take part in a minimum three-hour educational program consisting of classroom learning, online learning and hands-on drills. Those interested in serving on more than one team, or providing animal or medical relief, receive additional training.

“Being civically engaged in the community and helping make Fairfield County a better place is a huge part of Sacred Heart’s caring mission, and this program fits perfectly into that,” said Kaye, whose department is responsible for helping to recruit corps volunteers.

Sacred Heart’s Public Safety department also plays a key role. But the true strength of the Sacred Heart ERC is because volunteers and members of its planning committee are from throughout the university, Strong said. Nursing, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Education, Athletic Training, Communication, Social Work and Criminal Justice are just a few of the many disciplines and departments so far involved.

“As Hurricanes Irene, Sandy and Katrina have shown us in recent years, the need for this kind of assistance is huge, and Sacred Heart can provide not just those with the desire to help, but with the skills and expertise to help people safely and effectively. We’re really excited to have created this corps,” Kaye added.

Because the program is university-based and still in the pilot stage, only members of the Sacred Heart community can participate in the Emergency Reserve Corps. Community residents not affiliated with Sacred Heart, but interested in doing similar work, should contact their local health department or animal shelter to learn about possible opportunities.

Sacred Heart and U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials hope that once the Sacred Heart ERC pilot phase is complete, other universities in Connecticut and throughout the nation will use its model and curriculum to establish similar corps and effectively train volunteers.

“Our volunteers will be equipped with skills and training that, in effect, would allow them to go pretty much anywhere a disaster or emergency occurs and be of valuable assistance,” Strong said. “In a disaster, everyone has a potential role, and Sacred Heart believes it has a responsibility to prepare people to best serve.”

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