Organizing the unit started in late May as part of a restructured Emergency Services Volunteers program outlined in February by city Director of Emergency Services Kenneth Dueker.
He said the medical unit is crucial to effective disaster response. Stanford University Medical Center officials were clear during meetings that they wanted the city to care for lesser injuries in a disaster.
It could be hours or days before Palo Alto residents receive transportation for injuries after a disaster, he added. With most fire, police and emergency personnel residing outside of the city, the few on-duty police (about 10) and firefighters (about 29) would be overwhelmed in a disaster.
The specially trained volunteers will fill a gap between care at the hospital emergency room and ground-level emergency response from the volunteer Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), he said.
The new medical unit will have two levels: retired nurses and doctors for pre-hospital care and treatment in triage centers; and neighborhood volunteers for treating patients who don't require a trip to the emergency room.
Lesser-trained persons can act as scribes or in other support roles. The training is more akin to wilderness medicine, Dueker said.
Registered nurse Bonnie Berg, who is co-leading the medical unit, emphasized the importance of developing a volunteer emergency medical team.
"We will only have one another to depend on in case of a significant emergency.
"Each member of the team, from the medical care people to the scribes, runners and radio operators, is an important contributor in caring for people in need. I see the unit as an intelligent way to prepare for a disaster and an effective way to provide medical care for the people of our community in an emergency, " she said.
Even non-medical professionals can be trained in important skills, such as psychology training. Learning to calm people "is really important because a lot of people will be freaking out" during a disaster, she said.
"I was with a child as he was dying because a car rolled over on him. I couldn't do much for him as a nurse, but I could be there as his support person," she recalled Wednesday afternoon.
Nurses and doctors who don't want to actively participate in the unit can still be placed on a resource roster, Dueker said. They would be called upon only if needed for a disaster. Residents without medical backgrounds can receive basic instruction in the 20-hour CERT program and additional instruction in wilderness medicine and other support services, he said.
Dueker put the medical unit's importance in basic terms: The one thing he doesn't want to tell a person with a dangling broken arm is, "Sorry, you'll just have to wait."
More information about the medical unit, radio communications, shelter and human services or public works/storm response units can be found at paneighborhoods.org or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.