JSU’s emergency management program prepares students for careers in disaster response

Preparation is key in weathering an emergency. JSU prepares students to know how to respond to a weather-related event or a terrorist attack.

By its very nature, a public emergency is not a scheduled event. At best, you might have a few days of advance notice, as in the case of hurricanes or weather that might produce tornadoes. Worst-case scenario, the emergency hits without warning — an active shooter, terrorist attack or earthquake.

Either way, an emergency is not the time for on-the-ground planning.

For the past 25 years, Jacksonville State University has been helping students and working professionals prepare for a career in, well, being prepared, through degree programs in emergency management. What began in 1998 as a basic concentration for Master of Public Administration degree has evolved into an online program that eventually includes a bachelor’s and a master’s degree as well as the only doctorate degree in emergency management offered in Alabama — and one of the few in the nation.

Tanveer Islam, chair of the JSU Department of Emergency Management and Public Administration.

“We teach students how to make plans for preparedness, response, mitigation and recovery,” says Tanveer Islam, professor and chair of the JSU Department of Emergency Management and Public Administration. “What are the plans that need to be in place to respond to a disaster? What mechanisms are needed to reduce the impact of the disaster? When it hits, how do you respond to save people? Then once the disaster is over, what are the short-term and long-term recovery plans?

“We’re basically covering everything before, during and after the disaster. This program helps not only the emergency managers, but it also helps the communities to be more resilient and prepared.”

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Islam says there currently are approximately 500 active participants taking some level of the JSU emergency management program, including about 60 doctoral students. They range in age from teenage college students to EMA professionals in their 50s and 60s who want to advance in their careers. Islam says the department also is working with the U.S. Secret Service National Computer Forensics Institute in Hoover to develop a cybersecurity course for the agency.

In addition, JSU recently extended its original 10-year agreement with the FEMA Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston for another 10 years, a partnership that enables the university and CDP leaders to collaborate on research, internships and academic credits.

“This is an important partnership, as it brings together the academic with the practitioner,” CDP Superintendent Tony Russell said in January during a meeting announcing the agreement extension. “You have to have both those to shape the future of preparedness, response and recovery, and to really impact the national goal of a secure nation.”

It is all part of JSU’s effort to provide the education and training needed for a wide variety of careers in emergency management, from standard public information roles all the way to Homeland Security positions and anti-terrorism specialists.

“There are always going to be emergencies. So, there is always going to be a need to learn more about them and how to deal with them and recover from them,” says Allison Newton, program director and assistant professor with the JSU Department of Emergency Management & Public Administration. “How do you develop and implement policy so everything moves as smoothly as possible?

Allison Newton, program director with the JSU Department of Emergency Management and Public Administration.

“We saw with Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) what can happen if you’re not prepared. We’ve learned so much since then. If you can mitigate things in the beginning, you are less likely to be as mired down in the recovery process. This program teaches individuals how to be better prepared when emergencies happen, whatever they might be,” Newton says.

Accomplishing that requires much more than the creation of a things-to-do checklist. Instead, the classes take a deep dive into various emergency situations, carefully moving students through the factors that can lead to an emergency all the way to the final recovery efforts.

“I teach a class on hazard mitigation where students learn about the different potential hazards, both man-made and natural,” Islam says. “They learn how to do a risk analysis and a vulnerability analysis. There are structural and non-structural strategies within the plan. Then at the end, they have to submit a term paper that has an actual mitigation plan. It’s a very comprehensive emergency management education.”

That education has paid significant dividends for JSU graduate Michael Barton, who received a B.S. degree from the program in 2005 and currently is enrolled in the master’s program. Barton was the director of emergency management for Calhoun County when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Michael Barton, JSU master’s program candidate.

“In emergency management, we face natural and technological hazards all the time. But nobody had gone through a pandemic in about three generations,” says Barton, who currently is the director of public safety and chief of police for JSU. “So, I really had to rely on what I had learned in the program. As we began to understand that there was a hazardous virus out there and began to prepare for that, I went back and used some of those academic best practices as guidance.

“Then I reached out to some of the faculty, who helped refresh me with resources and expertise. So, while the education was important, the relationships I had built with the professors also was important. All of it prepared me to not only work in emergency management, but also to lead in that field.”

Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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