From mass casualties to hurricane response, USF College of Public Health undergraduate students gained hands-on experience in preparedness the past spring and summer through volunteerism and service-learning oriented courses.
The first of such hands-on experiences included student support of a Tampa Bay community preparedness effort where students served as evaluators at 16 local hospitals in partnership with the Hillsborough County Department of Health during a simulated mass casualty exercise.
The mass casualty simulation, part of COPH’s Disaster by Design course, allowed more than 45 agencies to engage in a county-wide operation to practice their preparedness skills, according to Elizabeth Dunn, course instructor and adjunct instructor in the Department of Global Health.
“On a quiet Thursday morning in March, Hillsborough County erupted into chaos as reports of a bomb blast and strings of mass shootings flooded hospitals with victims suffering from traumatic injuries with little time to prepare,” Dunn said. “More than 500 actors from were given casualty cards, moulaged with fake wounds and dropped at the doorstep of every hospital in the county—even the ones without emergency rooms, like Shriners Hospital for Children and Moffitt Cancer Center—to be treated by the staff.”
According to Dunn, all 16 hospitals transformed from routine operations to emergency management and response sites, each having its own command center overseeing the hospital’s operations during the exercise.
“Nurses turned into triage specialists, administrators into transporters, accountants into public information officers, and surgeons into incident commanders to fill the needs of the complex situation and add some control to the chaos,” Dunn said.
According to Dunn, the undergraduate students served as exercise evaluators, alongside a select group of trained government officials and Medical Reserve Corps volunteers, documenting the actions of the hospital from start to finish.
“Providing us with the opportunity to participate in evaluating such a massively scaled exercise and being able to see first-hand the response from behind closed doors in each hospital was an absolutely amazing opportunity,” undergraduate Jay Rajyaguru said.
Taking action in an emergency operations center
On May 4, COPH students enrolled in the same Disaster by Design course volunteered alongside emergency management professionals, first responders, and liaisons from a wide range of agencies as Hillsborough County participated in the statewide hurricane exercise.
“A scenario, injects and even newscasts were created for the exercise with Hurricane Coleman’s path through Florida highlighted, as if the real thing was happening,” Dunn said.
According to Dunn, students assisted in Hillsborough County’s brand new and fully-activated Emergency Operations Center (EOC), filling important positions including seats in the various emergency support functions, simulating citizens phoning in hazards in the community and attending briefings.
“Hillsborough County EOC’s planning section had students work with professionals in documentation and damage assessment, while others controlled the Simulation Cell (SIMCELL), which was charged with making the scenario a reality for those working in the EOC,” Dunn said.
SIMCELL volunteers manned phones, calling in reports of overturned buses, fallen trees, power outages, sheltering issues, and more to the call center staff, who then directed the issues to their respective emergency support function representatives in the EOC next door.
Volunteering at the 2017 Hurricane Expo
On June 4, students took time out of their busy schedules to volunteer with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue to host the 2017 Hurricane Expo by putting together more than 500 hurricane supply kits including emergency supplies, first aid kits, a water bottle, pens and a weather radio.
“Our students worked hard to assist with the logistics of planning for and setting up the event, answering questions residents had about preparedness, handing out hurricane supply kits, as well as teaching children about preparedness in the Kids Zone,” Dunn said.
Students reached more than 500 residents in Hillsborough County with 28 community partners in attendance, according to Dunn.
Bridging the gap between community and classroom
Students enrolled in the COPH’s Community Engagement in Public Health Preparedness course this summer also had the opportunity to engage in a service-learning approach to learning, according to Dunn, the course instructor.
“The course is designed to explore the disaster preparedness and humanitarian relief infrastructure of Tampa Bay, while thinking critically about public health issues affecting vulnerable populations in the area,” Dunn said. “Students were able to participate in volunteer and training opportunities, and learn about the region from public health and disaster management professionals, from government agencies to small local organizations.”
One such experience included bringing awareness to individuals in neighborhoods where flood zones recently, causing more families in Hillsborough County and across the country to be at risk, Dunn said.
Students helped to bring awareness to those in the affected neighborhoods by going door-to-door passing out fliers explaining the new flood zones, bus evacuation zones, and hurricane plans to 152 families.
“We worked in collaboration with Hillsborough County Office Emergency Management and the Local Mitigation Strategy (LMS) Working Group on public outreach projects for the Hillsborough County Program for Public Information (PPI),” Dunn said.
According to Dunn, students identified strategies for outreach and used ArcGIS to identify neighborhoods where the FEMA flood maps changed.
“We were able to utilize the Social Vulnerabilty Index (SVI) mapping tool developed by the CDC to identify some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods,” she said. “Our main goal is to help Tampa Bay become more resilient by educating the community on mitigation strategies and hurricane preparedness.”
“People seemed to be really appreciative of our efforts since they were unaware of the flood maps changing,” undergraduate Katja Miller said. “Not to mention, the hurricane kit on a budget plan was useful to many of them for coming up with a strategy that was affordable. It reminded them that their community cares about their well-being.”
Tracking the path of the storm with NOAA
The COPH’s Community Engagement in Public Health Preparedness also provided students the opportunity to visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the entity responsible for gathering data and doing research about weather conditions and the conditions of our oceans and atmosphere.
According to Dunn, NOAA assists the National Hurricane Center track and study hurricanes.
“Our faculty and students had the opportunity to tour their new facility and hanger while being able to meet some of the NOAA Hurricane Hunters that fly into the storm,” Dunn said.
Students were also able to tour the P3 NOAA aircraft, nicknamed Kermit.
“Visiting the NOAA facility was an eye-opening experience as we saw a side of hurricane research that the public does not usually get to see,” undergraduate Arturo Barahona said. “They provide an enormous amount of valuable data that has not only saved lives but allows us to better prepare ourselves for future natural disasters.”
Mallory Berner, an undergraduate student minoring in COPH’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management program, said she saw how vital NOAA is to data collection, as well as the importance of meteorology in public health preparedness.
“Their work is important to communities around the world because it not only helps them prepare, but could potentially save lives if they are able to identify how the data has shown changes regarding the direction of the storm or wind speed,” she said.
According to Dunn, students learned about the importance of the properly trained team members who gather data during storms.
“Now, I am appreciative of these individuals who risk their lives to gather information and make sure that we are informed and prepared for hurricanes,” undergraduate Keyana Doctor said. “The experience was enjoyable and I liked the fact that we were able to meet one of the pilots who navigate the NOAA aircraft. His position is equally important to the others because he has to know how to guide the plane properly into the hurricane, not too high and not too low, and then stay within the eye of the storm.”
“It was interesting to see how a team of experts can come together and really make an impact in emergency management,” undergraduate Arturo Barahona said. “Being born and raised in Miami, I’ve lived through a number of hurricanes, but I have never really thought of how all of the information used to keep us all safe really comes from and how much of a risk these experts put themselves in order to get this data.”
Understanding preparedness from all angles
Students enrolled in COPH’s Community Engagement in Public Health Preparedness also toured the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, Port Tampa, Tampa Bay Surface Water Treatment Facility, the Salvation Army Florida Divisional Headquarters for the State of Florida, and the Walt Disney World Emergency Operations Center.
According to Dunn, in an effort to increase preparedness and understand the role of vital organizations in the area, students spent time volunteering with Feeding Tampa Bay, installed more than 200 smoke alarms in a 55+ mobile home community near the university and helped build Zika kits for pregnant women with Pinellas County Public Health Preparedness at the Department of Health.
Dunn, who has taught the preparedness course for four years now, said students have always spoken highly of their experiences throughout the semester.
“Developing opportunities to go out into the field, meet professionals in a wide-range of disciplines, and encouraging the students to see some of the things we learn in the classroom,” Dunn said. “It really puts things into perspective and gets students to think outside of the box about public health while really getting to know the community.
Story by Elizabeth Dunn, USF College of Public Health