Disaster management grad program provides hands-on experience—a first in the U.S.

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The nation of Bockistan was hit by yet another natural disaster; this time, an earthquake may have caused a radioactive spill that could affect the health and well-being of the country’s 2.2 million residents. Nearly 40 emergency management professionals were deployed to assess the damages and assist the population.

This is the fictional scenario that FIU’s disaster management master’s students recently faced as they experienced their capstone practical field course. Held for the fourth time at Biscayne Bay Campus, the three-day exercise gives students the opportunity to put their knowledge into action and gain first-hand experience of what it is like to be in the aftermath of a disaster. This year, the cohort of 38 students was joined by the program’s first class of online students.

FIU is the only disaster management graduate program in the United States that provides a hands-on practical experience to its students.

“Often students do not get to put their skills and knowledge to use until they are deployed to a disaster when the stakes are at their highest. By creating this scenario and having our students live in it for three days, we are allowing them to test their skills and stretch their personal limitations. That is how we ensure that our graduates are prepared to help individuals and communities once they are really on the scene,” said Dulce Suarez, assistant director of the academy.

The course covers an introduction to humanitarian concepts and principles; deployment; reporting lines and authority; civil-military coordination; key military actors; possible tasks and activities; personal and team security; safety and medical care; sanitation and hygiene; and rapid assessment and data collection.

“By doing the field exercise, I realized how much knowledge I gained in a short intensive one-year study. I was in a living laboratory that forced me to apply most of what learned,” said Lumane Pluviose-Claude, who is currently teaching in higher education with a long-term goal of developing a curriculum for teaching disaster management in developing countries, such as her native country of Haiti.

The field exercise is a three-day, two-night field event that covers a 48-hour operational period. Students sleep in two 19-by-35-foot tents and consume Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). Upon arrival, they assess the situation, build their own camps – including sleeping shelters and laboratories; create assessments; and ensure basic safety conditions.

Students are required to perform a number of tasks, including written and oral assessments of the devastation. Humanitarian coordinators, they are required to assess what the people who have been directly affected need.

For the online students, the field course was particularly important as it was a chance for them to come together and meet faculty and fellow students for the first time.

“I appreciate meeting everyone and coming together as a team as we haven’t had a chance for as much personal interaction. I’m impressed by the amount of cooperation by the local jurisdictional agencies—state, local and federal,” said Charles C, who works for the federal government and took the course as an online student while living in the Washington, D.C., area. “This type of exposure and training is invaluable! For instance, I had some new deployment gear to test out for my real-world job and used this opportunity to evaluate it in a realistic training environment.”

New this year, students learned how to handle a possible radioactive spill or radiological contamination thanks to partnership with the Florida Department of Health, which helped simulate a point of distribution for iodine pills.

At the end of the three-day experience, students felt a sense of accomplishment, having survived their “first deployment.”

Their takeaways highlight the overarching impact of their work—when disaster strikes, it’s about the people.

“I learned that when responding to an emergency it is important to be informed about cultural beliefs and practices of the local population. This will demonstrate your respect and thoughtfulness toward them, making them more willing to accept your help,” said Amarish Mena, who will be applying the knowledge gained during the master’s program to a future medical degree.

“While having the academic knowledge of what an ideal disaster response should look like is essential, there is nothing like the real thing. To this end, the closest thing in this case is the culmination of the course with an elaborate live full-scale exercise,” said Javier I. Marques, executive director of the academy. “Working together to practice critical thinking and decision-making in a simulated disaster is crucial to having the ability to carry out responsibilities effectively during an actual disaster and this exercise provides a real life opportunity to apply what has been learned in the classroom and determine what is practical and effective.”

The people of Bockistan would surely be grateful.


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