Sunday, April 26, 2015

Learning from Experts on Disaster Management

When it comes to learning and education there is nothing like hearing from front-line expert practitioners. When the topics to be covered include emergency preparedness and disaster response some of the top experts who have played a role in responding to emergencies both local and global are right here in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. This is a public thank you acknowledging their contributions and willingness to share their wealth of experiences with students in a course on Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare that I taught this semester at the Isenberg School of Management.

The course, which has students from the Isenberg School, the College of Engineering, and the School of Public Health at UMass Amherst, covers all phases of disaster management from preparedness and mitigation to response and recovery. Those of us in western Massachusetts will never forget such recent “natural” disasters as the Springfield tornado on June 1, 2011, the once in a 500 year flood in Deerfield and surrounding areas due to Hurricane Irene in late August 2011, followed by the snowstorm in late October, 2011, which resulted in massive power outages, and Superstorm Sandy, which hit landfall in the U.S. on October 29, 2012, and is the second most costly natural disaster in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina. And, of course, we will always remember the shocking Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013, the suffering of the victims, and the heroism of responders.

On February 4, 2015, Ms. Debbie Wilson, a registered nurse from Lenox, MA, who is also a student at UMass Amherst, spoke on her experiences, over a 6 week period last Fall in Liberia, working with Doctors without Borders in battling the biggest outbreak of Ebola in history. She talked about helping to set up an Ebola treatment facility for 120 patients, the importance of medical supplies and equipment, which would have to be delivered from Geneva, Switzerland. She spoke about her personal experiences donning the special protective gear with hygienists who would then spray the chlorine on her after which she could carefully disrobe. She dealt with temperatures of 100 degrees, horrible rains, insufficient food for the staff - essentially making do with bread and mayonnaise with some ketchup for many meals. She described how they got rid of the medical waste by burning it in a pit. She emphasized the importance of logisticians, known as “logs” and her travel there, in itself, was a logistical feat. Ms. Wilson traveled by plane, truck, and canoe. Through her efforts and those of her fellow healthcare workers, the survival rate of Ebola patients was increased. She asks now that we not forget western African countries since the healthcare infrastructure there has been decimated since so many doctors and nurses died battling Ebola.

On February 11, 2015, Mr. Jeffrey Hescock, the Director for Emergency Management and Business Continuity at UMass Amherst since September 2013, spoke about protecting education, research, and the reputation of the university and how careful planning for sports events and other events on campus and periphery can enhance community building and minimize negative outcomes. In his previous position as the Emergency Management and Business Continuity Manager for the UMass President’s Office, Mr. Hescock was responsible for safely evacuating students and staff from UMass Dartmouth during the search for one of the Boston marathon bombers there. He described the shelters that were set up so that students, most of who are commuters, could reconnect with family members and friends. He also described the challenges of dealing with the immense media response to the events. Of course, given that we have had two university closings on Mondays this semester, due to major snowfalls, the students were also very interested in finding out who makes the decision to close the university. The emergency notification system, in particular, works very well. UMass has an excellent organization structure consisting of an emergency operations team as well as a business continuity and recovery committee and conducts not only table-top exercises but also field exercises such as the emergency sheltering exercise last spring at the Mullins Center, which also involved the town of Amherst.

Ms. Kim Goulette, the new Executive Director of the Pioneer Valley Red Cross spoke on February 23, 2015. The Red Cross provides immediate response to people in need because of disasters. Whether it is food, blankets, drinks, or even teddy bears for children in the near term, or shelter, food, and resources during the recovery phase, Red Cross volunteers are there to help. Ms. Goulette spoke about the big fire in Amherst last summer in an apartment complex at which she assisted after only about 1 week on the job. She described the role of the Red Cross in feeding the National Guardsmen who were deployed to eastern MA because of the multiple immense snowfalls this winter that disrupted lives, transportation, and other infrastructure. The Red Cross, which consists of 97% volunteers, provided soup, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, coffee and hot chocolate to the Guardsmen. A group of volunteers began their journey from the new Springfield headquarters with all the red cross activities now consolidated under one rook at 2AM to delivery nourishment.

On February 25, 2015, Mr. Brian Rust, the Director of Security Services at Cooley Dickinson Hospital spoke. He had originally been scheduled to speak the week before, but had to deal with emergencies at the hospital, and they were not patient emergencies! Nothing like some real-life practice in disruption management. Cooley Dickinson Hospital, which was recently acquired by Mass General Hospital, is one of our community hospitals, serving about 200,000 people. It seeks to provide the best possible healthcare in an appropriate setting. He noted that the population always assumes that hospitals will be available, when needed. He emphasized how a hospital is supposed to be prepared to be self-sufficient post a disaster for 96 hours. This, of course, entails backup power generators, the stockpiling of essential supplies, which is challenging given a model of just-in-time daily deliveries of medicines, and possible needs for additional food. Hazard analyses are conducted each year to prepare for possible natural disasters, human hazards, and technological ones. He emphasized the importance of communications and building strong relationships with other hospitals, first responders, etc.

During the snowstorms this past winter, 70 staff slept at the hospital to make sure that there was appropriate patient coverage, since a storm could affect transportation. And, the week prior to his lecture at the Isenberg School, Mr. Rust had to deal with multiple emergencies, beginning with a computer failure on Monday, followed by complete communication failure on Wednesday (not related to the Monday one) with no Internet or phone lines available. Hence, medical records could not be accessed electronically, and X-rays could not be read. Back to documentation on paper. This major disruption was fixed on Wednesday but then Wednesday afternoon a sprinkler pipe burst and flooded the back of the Emergency Room with thousands of gallons of water pouring in. There is a new cancer facility being constructed above the Emergency Room area and it seems that the pipe was not properly insulated. With facility experts on hand (luckily, he said, not everything has been outsourced) in a few hours the area was cleaned up and disinfected. During that period, however, 4 ambulances had to be diverted to other hospitals.

On March 25, 2015, we had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Jeff Meyer, the CEO of Blood Services for the Red Cross in Massachusetts and Connecticut, who told us how he had been a consultant for the Red Cross and was offered a job with this organization the day before 9/11. After the terrorist attacks that horrific day, he decided that he wanted to help communities and accepted the job offer from the Red Cross. With an outstanding background in operations, including an MBA, he has helped the Red Cross in balancing supply and demand of this life-saving product that is also highly perishable and has dealt with many challenges in the changing economic landscape of blood supply chains.

On April 8, 2015, the students got to hear from SMSgt Thomas Orifice of the 104th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard in Westfield. He came dressed in fatigues and had the students at the edge of their seats as he spoke about the response to Superstorm Sandy. Because NOAA had forecasted Superstorm Sandy one week before landing, major planning could be done in a timely manner and, within 24 hours, the Air National Guard had mobilized and delivered water, food, and fuel, which was direly needed since, with the loss of electricity, the gas pumps were not functioning and public transportation in NYC was at a standstill. Mr. Orifice has had an over thirty year career with the National Guard and has served in France Italy, Germany, and Kyrgyztan, and also took part in the liberation of Bosnia and Iraq Operation Freedom. 

And, on April 22, 2015, last,  but not least, the "other" Professor Nagurney (my husband), Dr. Ladimer S. Nagurney, who is a Professor of Electric and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, at the University of Hartford, spoke to the class on Disaster Communications, including the challenges of technology in this important domain, along with FirstNet.

Many thanks to the above Hometown Heroes, who took time out of their very busy schedules to share experiences with students – we are very lucky to have you in our midst.

Also, given that the number of disasters is growing, as well as the number of people affected by them, I have made the lectures, as well as many of the guest lecture presentations, available online.