Daryl Farmer (from left), of GADPH, Arnie Zwickel and Mike Mester check a Portral Montior that scans for radioactivity before volunteers of the Medical Reserve Corps-Georgia East Metro (known as MRC GEM), participate in mock disaster training at the Gwinnett County Health Department in Lawrenceville. Photo by Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

When disasters strike, it’s neighbors helping neighbors

Public health and safety personnel spend a lot of time thinking through worst-case scenarios: destructive tornadoes, health care scares, terrorist attacks.

If any of the “what ifs” become reality, there are hundreds of ordinary citizens ready to jump in and lend a hand. These are the unpaid, yet highly trained volunteers with the Medical Reserve Corps.

Last spring, Gwinnett County health officials were faced with a huge task of administering tuberculosis tests to students and staff at a local high school after a student there had tested positive for TB. The Gwinnett, Newton & Rockdale County Health Department needed assistance, so they called on the Medical Reserve Corps-Georgia East Metro, known in the community as MRC GEM. More than 20 corps volunteers spent three days helping test 3,200 people.

MRC GEM Executive Director Sherwin Levinson, who also was a volunteer helper that day, said of his group: “They gave up their personal days, their vacation days. Some of them had to get daycare. It was an awesome undertaking.”

MRC GEM is an all-volunteer unit of more than 625 people trained to help during large-scale emergencies. Most members have had no prior medical or emergency experience. They range in age from 18 to 80 with diverse skills and abilities, but share a common desire to serve their community and keep it safe.

“It’s a good feeling to know you’re taking care of your family and your community,” said Arnold Zwickel, a corps member since 2008.

Levinson and his wife Judee have been corps volunteers since its beginning in 2005. Both are retired — he was in business, she was an attorney. Their first experience with emergency response was in 1998 after a tornado ripped through their Berkely Lake neighborhood, leaving them without electricity for a week and no way out of their street. Levinson volunteered to help manage the city’s cleanup effort, then became Berkeley Lake’s first emergency manager.

From there, he was asked by Gwinnett County health officials to form the nonprofit MRC GEM to help improve emergency preparedness.

“The primary thing we train for is a worst-case scenario,” Levinson said. “When something happens, it’s too late to gather and start training people.”

Members need only submit to a background check and go through some basic online courses. For those who want it, free monthly training is offered on a variety of emergency and health topics, such as anthrax threats, telemedicine, search and rescue, First Aid and radiation – for which the corps has received national recognition.

Levinson said the group is interested in any type of emergency or “helping-their-neighbor” type of training.

“Our mission is basically to help make our community safer, and anything that will help promote community safety is fair game for our training,” he said.

Zwickel, a retired grandfather from Lawrenceville, plans the classes based on what members want and what the health department needs. For the past decade, he’s given a lot of his spare time to corps activities. Zwickel says “it’s a labor of love.”

Liza O’Neal, a former kindergarten teacher from Duluth, joined MRC GEM because she wanted something interesting to do in retirement. She had always been the teacher who bandaged injured students, and her principal urged her to get First Aid certification, which piqued her interest in emergency training.

One of her most satisfying assignments was serving on an emergency team during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in February. Volunteers helped with air quality checks and were kept abreast on emergency preparedness throughout the Super Bowl week, she said.

“It was just very interesting being a part of it,” O’Neal said. “This makes for an exciting retirement.”

Jarron Okine, 26, was a student at Georgia Gwinnett College when he first heard about MRC GEM from an on-campus exhibition. He researched the group online and signed up that day in 2015.

He remained active in the corps even after transferring to Augusta College to finish his degree. Okine plans to attend medical school next year and says MRC GEM is a perfect fit for his future career as a physician.

Okine was in Augusta in 2017 when Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage in South and Central Georgia. As a corps member, he was able to help out in two different shelters in the Augusta area.

“It was an opportunity to put all of my training to use and to help people. Honestly, it was a blessing. It was wonderful to be able to help people,” Okine said.

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