Emergency management students aid undermanned localities

Michael Melkonian 
Contributing Writer

Small communities across Virginia rely on the VCU students of James Keck’s emergency management graduate course for state-required updates to local emergency plans.

This spring, they will still be able to depend on that aid.

The homeland security and emergency preparedness course, HSEP 601, creates and updates emergency operations plans for understaffed and underfunded Virginia localities received a service-learning project award for the spring 2014 semester.

James Keck, a professor in the Homeland Security Department of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, made it clear in his proposal why the work being done by his students is substantial enough to deserve the award.

“Many of the localities in Virginia are very small localities and probably 90 percent of them are small counties that have 10-20 thousand residents in them,” Keck said. “They don’t have the resources or the time to be able to really review their plans and update them.”

After spending the first half of the class studying the course textbook, Federal Emergency Management Agency materials and the official Virginia templates for emergency operations plans, they get thrown into the deep end – the real world of experiential learning.

“I identified teams of students in the class, from three to five students, to work on a plan,” Keck said. “I hooked them up with an emergency manager who was interested in getting their plan reviewed.”

The funds are used to purchase equipment the students need to engage in video conferences with emergency managers throughout Virginia about a course of action. This is just the beginning for the students though.

“They put in a minimum of 20 hours each, frankly many more hours, in reviewing, evaluating and updating the plans,” Keck said.

Joshua Ronk, a homeland security and emergency preparedness graduate student, took the course in his first year of the program. Ronk, who plans to graduate in May, worked with Fluvanna County, a rural district southeast of Charlottesville, Va.

“It provides a unique experience and a unique skill set that you can use when applying for jobs,” Ronk said. “You’re competing against people who have been in the field for five or 10 years for the same entry level jobs. It does make you a little bit more competitive.”

Since 9/11, HSEP outsiders might imagine an emergency plan would focus on responses to a terrorist act, but Keck said that these types of plans have been around much since 2001.

“Emergency operations plans have been around long before 9/11 happened, but certainly that increased the awareness of the need to prepare for emergencies and disasters,” Keck said. “But they weren’t as extensive, perhaps, as they are now.  They might not have contained a terrorism annex.”

In fact, destructive weather patterns are often the biggest challenge facing emergency teams across Virginia, said Anthony McLean, the coordinator for the emergency manager for Richmond.

“The most common emergencies that you have to be prepared for in the city of Richmond would probably be hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and winter storms,” McLean said.

The severity of the emergency doesn’t lessen the necessity of the program, though.

“It helps the smaller communities a great deal, they’re very appreciative of it,” Keck said. “It’s work that they frankly don’t have the funds to pay to consult somebody to have them do it.”

Keck says the service learning experience is a win-win for both the students involved, and the communities they serve. In addition to helping his Homeland Security students get the in-depth experience they need to jumpstart their professional careers, he also gets the satisfaction of knowing that he was able to positively affect Virginia communities and organizations.

“Many of the localities have even sent letters back to us saying how much they appreciate what we did,” Keck said. “We are expanding the capability now to colleges and universities, who also need emergency operations plans.”

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