Tornados, Earthquakes, COVID

By Professor Scott Bisson

It is the afternoon of April 27, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama when the first tornado warnings are issued to the community. Alabamians are no stranger to severe weather threats and like many people they are used to receiving many alerts, warnings and watches that seem to be overreactions. On this day however, the warnings will be spot on and a major EF4 tornado will rip through parts of the state leaving death and destruction in its wake.

On University Drive, the power to the fire station is still out and the radio is eerily silent after the roaring sound of the tornado passes Tuscaloosa Fire Station #2 on the edge of the University of Alabama. You are a firefighter on duty in the station and emerge from a windowless room to see that the garage doors have been blown off the tracks but the firetrucks look to be operable. A quick look outside immediately shows how strong the winds were as the house with the blue shutters across the street is now missing and a pickup truck is flipped over on its roof in the middle of the street. The time is 6:50 PM, what are your first actions?

In 2018, Sacred Heart University expanded its Master of Public Administration graduate program to offer a concentration in Emergency Management. The four course sequence includes an exploration of risk management, crisis communications, and the emergency management cycle including preparedness and managing the post emergency response. Emergency management is a rapidly growing field that continues to evolve after each and every major disaster. Lessons learned following Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the response to Sandy Hook remain important for future managers to understand as they prepare for future responses.

PAD555, Emergency Response and Recovery explores how people react during crisis, how the government responds and how organizations both public and private recover after a major disaster strikes. Case studies of past natural and manmade disasters allow the students to learn from the successes and failures of previous responders to improve their response methodology. Team building and critical thinking are valuable skills that are reinforced through tabletop exercises in class.  Working closely with MPA Program Director Lesley DeNardis, the first delivery of PAD555 was planned for the MPA cohort during the Spring 2020 trimester.  PAD555 was intended to be the second course in a sequence allowing students to first learn basic principles of pre-emergency planning and then apply those plans to simulated situations in the second course.  However, experience has shown that disasters can strike before officials and emergency managers have time to review established plans and therefore direct entry is allowed into this course creating a realistic environment for discussion and decision making.

When the course was originally planned, there was no foresight that predicted the COVID19 crisis currently affecting the world, but students quickly learned how to evaluate the emerging issues from an emergency management perspective. As one student stated in their course evaluation, “This class is happening in real time in real life with the measures we are taking for COVID-19. This class has made it easier to understand the world we are living in.” Each classroom session starts with a situation report covering current events and threats in the world as well as the local SHU community. Very early on, students were engaged with the initial tracking of the COVID crisis in China and discussed the challenges of managing the first local impacts to the US involving the travel of sick passengers on planes and cruise ships. What are the rights of passengers on a cruise ship that are not sick? What government has authority over the passengers that do not comply with captain’s orders? Can airlines use thermal scans to identify sick people and does this violate right to privacy? Using the structured framework of the National Incident Management system and assigned to specific roles, student worked together in a simulated Emergency Operations Center team environment to manage these and other types of threats.

It is the afternoon of August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia when working as an EMT you are dispatched to a vehicle accident with injuries. A peaceful protest has turn to tragedy after a vehicle intentionally rammed into a crowd of people with nefarious intent. As you arrive on the scene, screams can be heard over your sirens and you can see many more victims lying in the street than you were expecting to find in need of immediate assistance. After calling for more ambulances and law enforcement, what are the first steps to take to manage this emergency?

In response to the above mass casualty scenario, the students were assigned emergency responder roles such as incident commander, police, fire and EMS department representatives and performed an emergency triage on simulated victims and transported victims to the hospital. With sirens and emergency radio traffic in the background, the students completed tasks and responded to real time scenario injects as a part of the response. Following the exercise, an after action review was completed and students shared their experiences with the entire class.

Beyond the initial response, the class learned to identify long term recovery needs for different communities following a major disaster.  Students learn the processes of assessing and reporting damage, how and why disaster declarations made, and what kinds of federal support may be available to eligible communities. Does a community rebuild or abandon?  Are there mitigation strategies that can prevent future damage? How does a coastal community deal with the realization that its highest taxable shoreline properties are slowly being reclaimed by the ocean due to rising sea levels and increasing flood frequency?  Communications, public information and community involvement are just some of the strategies explored.

Students interested in careers in emergency management should realize that they are joining the essential employee workforce.  Members of the Emergency Management team do not get early dismissal from work or days off when it snows or tornadoes strike. When the public is told to stay home and stay safe during a pandemic, emergency services workers are still required to come to work. This requires strong family support systems and the development of a personal emergency plan in the home which now includes some extra rolls of toilet paper and disinfecting wipes.

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