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Preparing Communities to be Resilient

Students in UNLV's crisis and emergency management program focus on preparedness for potential disasters

Campus News  |  Aug 17, 2017  |  By Pashtana Usufzy
Group of police officers

Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (center in suit) leads a meeting of officers before the 2016 Presidential Debate at UNLV. He is a graduate of UNLV's master of science in executive crisis and emergency management program. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

In the midst of a fire or pandemic — surrounded by chaos and under tremendous pressure — emergency management leaders take the helm, helping to steer cities and organizations to become stronger and more resilient.

As experts in the crisis management field, they calmly decide the best next steps to take, relying on teamwork, communication, and preparation skills. These skills are taught extensively in UNLV's master of science in executive crisis and emergency management program.

"We're training you to manage, tell first responders where to go, and how to strategically place people and resources," said Christopher Stream, director of the School of Public Policy and Leadership within the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. "That's what we try to teach people: How would you lead in a time of crisis?"

Recently, the program again updated its curriculum with cybersecurity content, and the school crafted a separate four-course certificate program in cybersecurity that is expected to debut in spring 2018.

What Urban Cities Need

Created in 2003 in response to preparedness discussions surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the master’s program originally focused on training students to understand and respond to terror incidents. Roughly two years later, however, Hurricane Katrina devastated communities of the Gulf Coast, raising questions nationally about how emergency management plans could have helped reduce deaths and quicken assistance.

The hurricane pushed program staff to expand the curriculum, training students to understand the theoretical and practical implications of emergency preparedness in all facets of life, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks to extreme heat and biohazard incidents.

"We wanted it to be more broadly defined," Stream said. "We've been able to respond to changes in thinking in the field but we've also been able to be proactive."

The goal is to offer students every resource they need to lead teams battling today's disasters. By doing so, the school hopes to promote informed, fast responses to disasters and build robust, dynamic communities that are less likely to be decimated by a major crisis.

As part of the curriculum, students work on creating solutions for community projects. For example, students updated operations plans for Clark County Animal Rescue and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department jail.

The Big Picture

According to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, a graduate of one of the earliest cohorts, the coursework in the program contributed to his appreciation for the "bigger picture" response to emergencies.

At the time he enrolled, Lombardo was an assistant to then-Sheriff Bill Young and he thought the degree program, which was still in its infancy, could be useful to his role with the department while also adding to his resume.

Getting an inside, in-depth look at the role of other agencies in disaster response helped deepen his comprehension of how emergencies can be properly addressed, he said.

"It gave me an understanding of all of the nuances," he said of the coursework. "It's directly related to what we do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. We have to operate as a team in order to be successful."

The students in the program are generally working professionals. Most of the coursework is online, and many students are already in leadership roles within their workplaces, which might be in corporate, nonprofit, or government entities. A sizable percentage haven't been in a traditional university environment for years, so the program ensures they are reintroduced to college life in a fun way, taking them around the main university campus.

Coming to Las Vegas

Students are expected to come to Las Vegas for six long weekends during the two-year program so that they have a chance to meet each other and staff, take trips to local first responder and emergency locations, and receive an emergency management education in an influential and highly visible city.

"The diversity of events that happen in Las Vegas really creates a unique experience for our students," Stream said. "That's why we have them come to Las Vegas, so they have the chance to interact with very innovative technologies and very innovative groups."

With its full complement of large concerts and sporting events, military bases, sometimes extreme weather, and bustling tourism industry, Las Vegas is a large enough city to discover how emergency management works but is small enough that students have immediate access to resources and important organizations. This past summer, students got an inside look at the Clark County Emergency Operations Center.

"Las Vegas, because we are such a big tourist destination, we're seismically active, we have flooding, wildfires — it's a really good location with emergencies that you're going to have to prepare for and mitigate," said Guy DeMarco, an emergency management specialist with the city of Las Vegas who completed his master’s degree in the program in 2015.

DeMarco enrolled in the program during a vital time in his life. After more than 15 years in the TV news industry, he'd made the decision to change careers.

"I'd been dealing with reporting about emergencies for a long time, and I decided I wanted to do more than report about it. I wanted to do what I could to help prevent them," he said.

Transitioning career fields isn't easy, but DeMarco said the program was perfect for his busy schedule.

"The classes were great. It's tailor-made for someone like me who's going to school and working full time," he said. "They do a really good job of engaging students."

Incredible Expertise

Students say the faculty is one of the best aspects of the program. Educators from around the country, often with extensive applied work experience, are hired.

"We get to take advantage of incredible expertise around the country because of the fact that they don't have to live here to teach," Stream said. "It's really a great mix of interesting people as faculty members, which has clearly been a strength."

Program graduate Samantha Ouren, who hopes to work in law enforcement, said she looked forward to enrolling in what she believed would be diverse courses offering unique perspectives on emergency management, and she wasn't disappointed.

"It's amazing when you start this program how so many of the students come from different backgrounds. They range from firefighters to social workers to individuals who are working on temporary shelter when a disaster hits, and I think the program has something for everyone," she said.

Useful Relationships

One of the factors that has made the program so successful is the variety of relationships the School of Public Policy and Leadership has formed with the campus and greater Las Vegas community.

Through faculty connections, the program’s 123 alumni, and networking, Stream and program staff have established ties to make it easier for students to gain experience and eventually get hired.

As part of her capstone project, Ouren was offered the opportunity to work with UNLV police services, assisting with social media communications and analyzing how those resources are best used during emergencies and disasters. Some students have participated in statewide emergency trainings and others have assisted the city of Las Vegas in assessing sprinkler requirements.

As he prepares departments within city government to be ready for major disasters, DeMarco actively is utilizing the lessons he learned at UNLV and ensuring the city is a more resilient place.

"I never would be where I am right now had it not been for the program," he said.

The two-year program begins every January and July with an application deadline of Nov. 15 for spring semester.

Not ready to commit to a two-year program? The school also is launching a one-year cybersecurity program in spring 2018. It offers an overview of different aspects of cybersecurity, including legalities and lingo for those in leadership positions who must assess the risk of cybersecurity threats and make decisions for an organization.

Applications for the cybersecurity certificate program are due Dec. 1.