With an increase in back-to-back hurricanes, historic wildfires and unprecedented flooding, preparing the next generation of disaster management professionals to respond in times of crisis is vital to the safety of communities near and far. At Florida International University, the Academy for International Disaster Preparedness (AIDP), ranked #4 in the nation for its graduate program, does just that.
This month, 50 AIDP students gained first-hand experience responding to a simulated large-scale international disaster. The three-day field operation exercise was the culmination of an intensive 12-month course that trained students on how to respond to extreme disasters around the world. The course covered critical topics such as deployments, civil-military coordination, reporting lines and authority, damage assessments, and more.
The field operation exercise allowed the students to practice what they learned in class.
“A special thank you to our partners, faculty and staff who helped make this an unforgettable experience for our students,” said Javier I. Marques, Vice President of Operations and Security and Chief of Staff and Executive Director of the AIDP. “In addition to what is learned in the classroom, real-life experiences like these are essential for developing leadership, teamwork and communication skills – essential skills that first responders must possess in the event disaster.”
On the first day, the students were dropped into a fictional country that had been devastated by an earthquake. Divided into teams and led by a student team leader, students were tasked with assessing the damage, coordinating with partners, and ultimately putting an action plan in place to meet the needs of affected communities. .
“You can read all about disaster management and how to respond to a disaster, but there’s nothing more educational than responding to a disaster and being on the ground and just doing the response,” said Wesley Urrutia, a student graduating this fall with a master’s degree in disaster management.
Students were exposed to various assets typically used in disaster response, including helicopters, seagoing vessels and others.
“The Disaster Exercise offers disaster management responders the opportunity to test new equipment, technologies, including tactics and strategies to assess their effectiveness before the actual disaster strikes,” said Ruben Almaguer, Founder of AIDP.
The austere environment also combined other realistic elements typically encountered in the field such as sleeping in cots, no Wi-Fi access and eating MREs (ready-to-eat meals) for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“It’s definitely a lot of quick thinking on your feet,” said Margaux Mas, an AIDP alumnus who now works as an emergency preparedness officer in Tampa. “You don’t have your books and you don’t have the Internet. You won’t always have these resources available in real life. It’s all about instinct and whatever experience and knowledge you have.
Partners are essential to disaster response
In times of disaster, partnerships between governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector are essential to help transition response to recovery.
During the exercise, AIDP students experienced partnerships in action. Embedded in their teams were Marines from US Southern Command and staff from Food for the Poor, a non-profit organization that provides food, medicine and shelter to communities in need. The DHL courier service disaster response team also participated, offering their expertise in logistical support. This was the first time the field course included participants outside of FIU, allowing students to strengthen their communication skills and learn from different perspectives.
On the ground, first responders from the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department and the US Coast Guard helped students reach hard-to-reach places using a helicopter and boats.
Upon arrival, the students met with fictional country governors, mayors, victims, and actors from different walks of life to learn about their food, water, and shelter needs.
“Our goal is for students to walk away from this event, saying they responded effectively to a disaster,” said Dulce Suarez, deputy director of the AIDP and one of the main organizers of the field course. . “If a disaster happens, I want them to be ready to jump on a plane and respond, because they have the knowledge and the skills to do so.”
Bring diverse experiences
AIDP students came from both online and in-person disaster management graduate programs. Suarez shares that it was the first time the field course, which has been offered since 2015, had more online students than in-person students.
“That’s what makes our program unique – that even online students who are entirely home-schooled at their own pace can come to campus and participate in this exercise,” she adds.
Students had the opportunity to mingle and learn from each other’s work experiences – many of whom are employed as first responders, educators, and government and nonprofit staff. .
Student team leader Adam Schachner, who works as a high school teacher outside of school hours, encourages those interested in disaster management to take the plunge and enroll in the graduate program.
“It’s literally for anyone, regardless of your background or interests,” he said. “There is something you could do to help the global and local community in a really meaningful way. You can be a master of disaster too.