Ready for the worst

Written by: 
Michelle Hale

With another severe weather season approaching, disaster response organizations and agencies are making sure they are prepared, and now, so are some students at UNT. 

UNT opened its own Emergency Operations Center lab last fall and is training students in the Emergency Administration and Planning program to use the same software applications employed by many municipal, state and federal emergency management agencies.

Emergency Operations Center lab at UNT (photo by Jonathan Reynolds)

What is an Emergency Operations Center?

EOCs are bases of operation to coordinate emergency responders and serve as nerve centers for all communications following a disaster, such as the tornados that struck Oklahoma Feb. 10. 

"An emergency operations center is crucial to managing disasters, because it's where responding organizations' representatives meet, exchange information, and prioritize disaster needs," says James Kendra, associate professor of public administration and Emergency Administration and Planning Program coordinator.

EOC lab's benefit to students

Kendra explains that UNT's new center provides a life-like facility in which students learn how to apply various technologies in an emergency setting and which bolsters their knowledge of the ways individuals and organizations interact during a crisis.

"Much of modern emergency response depends on how well people choose and interact with technology and with each other," he says.

The lab is operated by Eliot Jennings, EOC lab coordinator and former emergency management coordinator for the City of Galveston and Galveston County. Jennings was the operations manager in Galveston when Hurricane Rita forced the evacuation of Galveston, Houston and much of the Texas coast in 2005.

"It can be difficult for students in a traditional classroom to conceptualize the atmosphere of an EOC, the level of control and the degree of coordination required to handle emergencies and disasters," Jennings says. "Students' ability to use the technology they need to gather and distribute information to the multiple stakeholders, manage resources and maintain documentation involved in responding to and recovering from disasters adds realism to their learning. 

"The lab gives students a chance to practice the real decision making and critical thinking they'll need when managing disasters," Jennings explains. "That means that a real event won't be the first time they're exposed to the application of technology and the stress that can occur in an EOC.

EOC's benefit to communities and the public

Jennings says the communities and agencies that hire students with EOC experience will have emergency managers who are well rounded, grounded in both academic learning and hands-on experience. 

"These students will be able to hit the ground running when a disaster strikes, with an enhanced degree of confidence in their abilities," he says. "This confidence can be extremely valuable to the entire organizational response.  As disaster researcher E. L. Quarantelli has said, 'All disasters get managed one way or another, even if everything is done wrong.'  Hiring these students will promote better management of disasters in the community.  Ultimately, these students will make their communities safer places to live, work and visit."

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