Tuesday, June 25th, 2024
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Responding to Emergencies

Everyone is familiar with emergencies. But what, exactly, is an emergency manager, and what do they do?

Everyone is familiar with emergencies. But what, exactly, is an emergency manager, and what do they do? “Emergency managers deal with all things disasters,” explains Dr. Duane Hagelgans, professor of emergency management. “This can be natural disasters, technological disasters or acts of terrorism. The main role of an emergency manager is to keep people safe through proper preparedness, response and recovery.”

In addition to teaching at MU, Hagelgans serves as the fire commissioner and emergency management coordinator for Blue Rock Regional Fire District. He is able to give his students current examples of the work of emergency managers. Recently, he has advocated for railroad companies to be more forthcoming with the materials they haul so first responders know what they’re dealing with in the case of a derailment.

“The work of emergency management professionals is essential to the well-being of communities, explains Dr. Tim Sevison, assistant professor of emergency management. Sevison has an extensive background in emergency and disaster preparedness and response and most recently served as the deputy director for operations for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

“The primary role of the emergency manager within the community is in the building of resilience and capacity.” While the job is tough, the work is important. “What makes me stay in the field is seeing and working with a new generation that has a passion for helping others and a desire to effect the necessary changes to build resilient communities,” says Sevison.

Dr. Sepi Yalda, director of MU’s Center for Disaster Research and Education and coordinator of the master’s program in emergency management, echoes his sentiments, saying, “I love interacting with the students and helping them in their journey to expand on their knowledge, skills and experiences. Watching students be successful and grow as individuals and professionals is the best part of teaching and mentoring.”

Here, alumni and faculty members share their experiences in the field and why they continue the difficult but important work of managing emergencies.

DENNIS MERRIGAN ’15M

Dennis Merrigan hated school. It wasn’t that he hated learning or did poorly on tests – in fact, he frequently got top scores on standardized tests – but something about school and Merrigan spelled trouble. Between lagging grades (“I got mostly D’s on report cards,” he says) and an accumulated number of offenses, he finally got kicked out of high school during his junior year. This may have suited Merrigan just fine; after all, he describes his experience in those early years as “brutal.” It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that, today, Merrigan is earning a doctorate in emergency management and, before that, earned a master’s in emergency management from Millersville University.

Much of Merrigan’s career was, and is, as a firefighter and fire officer, which is something of a family legacy. Both his father and uncle were firefighters. For the past four years, Merrigan has served as the chief fire marshal for the city of Philadelphia, where he oversees the fire investigation unit. “Taking arsonists and people who start fires intentionally off the street is a victory because they hurt innocent people,” he explains. “When you start a fire, you have no idea where it’s going to end.”

Around 2003, he was transferred to Center City Philadelphia and started thinking about earning a degree in emergency management. That’s when he found Millersville University. He and his wife were in the early years of raising a family, so the online program worked well for him. “I would put my kids to bed at night, get a cup of tea, write until 3 a.m., and then go to work,” he shares. “The program showed me that there are a lot of different angles to fire service. Dr. Sepi Yalda, the program head, Dr. Duane Hagelgans, and everyone were really friendly. Academically, it was my best experience.”

While the job is rewarding, says Merrigan, it comes with a cost. Sometimes you can’t save everyone. Even your own coworkers. “The first time that I experienced somebody that I knew dying on the job was at my very first station. Reality comes crashing in on you. People get killed in this job. Really good people.” Those tragic experiences taught Merrigan the importance of continual learning. “You study and you study, and you can never learn enough about emergencies and disasters because they’re unpredictable by nature.”

Today, Merrigan’s role has him removed from the front lines of crises, and he takes great pride in his role of helping to keep the city safe and mentoring the next generation of emergency managers. “There’s a lot of learning that goes into becoming an investigator, so I’m constantly pushing my people to stay in the books and stay on top of their trade.”

JEFF JUMPER ’16M

You could say that Jeff Jumper’s career in emergency management began at the age of 14. That’s when he first began his role as a volunteer firefighter near his hometown of Shavertown in northeastern Pennsylvania. “My grandfather was a fireman in the city of Scranton and used to take me to the firehouse as a kid, and I was hooked,” says Jumper. “My older brother joined the local fire company when I was 8, and I counted the days until I could join, too.”

Jumper earned a degree in meteorology and while working in the field, he had a chance encounter with a group of volunteer firefighters who were students enrolled in Millersville’s emergency management program. “I talked to Dr. Sepi Yalda, the coordinator of the emergency management master’s program. I was like, ‘This is the way to go,’” shares Jumper. “Since then, I’ve had a lot of friends in television that were like, ‘Hey, what’s the deal with this program?’ and a number of them have joined the program since.”

What is it that makes the path between firefighting, meteorology and emergency management so closely connected? Jumper says it’s the overlap in skills. “I often say having a background doing something like volunteer firefighting is a gateway in. Having a meteorology background seems to excite the community because so much of what we do involves natural hazards. Those three things – being a first responder, broadcaster and meteorologist – tend to work well together because you get the experience of actually going to events firsthand along with the education,” explains Jumper.

While he loved his career in meteorology, the schedule eventually became a conflict when he and his wife began raising their two young children. “I started in the program at Millersville, hoping to start a five-year exit plan from television, and then the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency created a state meteorologist position that I applied for.” Jumper accepted the job in 2015 while still enrolled in MU’s program, where he was able to use his new role as his capstone project for his master’s degree. He crossed the stage in 2016 and came back to his alma mater in 2017 to become an adjunct professor at the Center for Disaster Research and Education. “Giving back to my community has long been a part of my life, and there’s no better way to give back than sharing knowledge and wisdom I have gained through my experiences with those looking to enter the field,” says Jumper. In late September of this year, he served as a guest speaker at the University’s annual Preparedness Day, an educational event that aims to help students be prepared for emergencies.

In 2022, Jumper became the resiliency program manager at PEMA. In this role, he says he’s “. . . been tasked with developing a new program to help build a more disaster-resilient Pennsylvania. It’s recovery after disaster, but it’s also hazard mitigation.” Education is a key component of his new role. “We’re trying to find ways to help people understand how to be more resilient at the individual level, starting with their homes,” he explains. “We’re looking at the municipal level, including counties, the private sector, state agencies and more – how can they become more resilient? Some of that’s planning, some of that’s education, some of that’s just having conversations with people.”

One small change that Jumper was able to enact that has the potential for big change came in a surprising way: an update to the Pennsylvania Driving Manual. Flooding, flash flooding and snow squalls are some of the most common disasters in the state. “We’ve seen the devastating effects of property damage all the way to lost lives,” he says. Jumper suggested adding the weather events to the driving manual when he was in a meeting with other emergency managers. They gave him the go-ahead to contact PennDOT. The educational material was approved and added, and now new drivers all across the state might be just a little more prepared. And that, explains Jumper, is the goal of all of his work. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but I’m proud to do my part to help make Pennsylvania a little safer.”

CHRIS SOELLE ’16M

Weather and emergencies touched Chris Soelle’s life at an early age. In 2001, an F3 tornado barreled through his native Wisconsin and caused extreme damage to the neighboring community. “At first, we didn’t know anything happened,” he recalls. “The power went out, and so we went to the basement with our pets for the rest of the night.” The next day, his mom took him over to his grandparents’ neighborhood to assess the damage, and the young Soelle took note of the many voluntary agencies on the scene. That formative experience, paired with a memorable unit on weather in sixth grade and his favorite movie, “Twister” (“I loved it, but it gave me nightmares,” shares Soelle), solidified an early interest in weather and emergency preparedness.

Soelle went on to earn an undergraduate degree in meteorology. “While I was studying for that degree, I heard about these people called emergency managers and how they help people prepare for extreme weather and also help them recover from those events,” he explains. “It really grabbed my attention, and I realized I wanted to help people by going into that career.” After a talk with his college advisor, who suggested Millersville’s program, he applied and got accepted – and even took on a teaching assistant position with the Center for Disaster Research and Education. “I loved the program and the people at Millersville.”

Soelle shares that his professors emphasized the importance of internships. “It’s something I’d heard in my undergrad, but it came into play even more in grad school, where there’s a big emphasis on getting experience. It’s helped me to have more opportunities in my career.”

Today, Soelle is the executive officer for the recovery division at FEMA in Kansas City, Missouri. “I’ve learned that I really thrive in helping leaders make informed decisions,” he explains. “The mission at FEMA is to help people before, during and after disasters, and it keeps each one of us going, day in and day out.”

In addition to his primary role at FEMA, he’s also part of the hurricane liaison team, which means he can be deployed to the front lines of disasters. “That’s where I can bring my experience with meteorology and emergency management together. You work as a liaison between forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and emergency managers to interpret the forecast and what the impacts in communities will be based on that forecast.” The role, says Soelle, is primarily to help emergency managers understand what it means to their community, and in times of crisis, it’s important to get that information to them quickly. “They’re going through so much on the ground that they don’t have time for that noise. They need to be able to make decisions and don’t have room for error when it comes to something like an evacuation.”

As for advice for students, Soelle has this to say: “If anyone is interested, there’s a role for you in the emergency management community. It’s a big field and a rewarding career path, especially if you like helping people. Yes, you can travel a lot, and you can also be there for people on some of their worst days and make a difference in the community.”

MONICA WARD ’22M

From an early age, Monica Ward knew she wanted to use her career to help others. She comes from a long line of veterans and decided to join the Army National Guard. “The big selling point for me was the fact that the National Guard responds to disasters here in the U.S.,” she shares. “Katrina had just happened, and I wanted to be a part of the solution.”

Her work with disaster response in the National Guard began in 2014, and in 2017, she was deployed to the Virgin Islands in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. “I saw the breakdown in the failures within the response,” shares Ward, noting the experience reminded her of her desire to study emergency management.  When the pandemic paused Ward’s work travel, she took the opportunity to pursue her dream at Millersville.

“The master’s program definitely helped me understand what focus area of emergency management I’m most passionate about and where I can have an impact in this field,” says Ward. “I don’t think I would have figured that out without Millersville’s program.”

What is her passion? “I advocate for rural communities and the disproportionate resource allocation, funding and support to those rural communities,” explains Ward, who credits her interest in the subject to a course on social vulnerabilities that she took in the program. Today, in her role as an emergency management program coordinator–zone liaison in King County, Washington, she does just that.

Ward supports 17 jurisdictions, a tribe and additional partners with the development and implementation of their emergency management programs. Many of those partners are understaffed, undersupported and in rural jurisdictions. “I’ve been to communities where no one ever came in to help them with recovery from a wildfire,” she says. “And years later, we are still fighting with their insurance company because no one came.”

Ward hopes to start a mentorship program among her jurisdictions to improve collaboration, professional development and resource coordination to continue her advocacy work for rural communities.

ALANNA BEZAS ’22

Not everyone enters the emergency management field with an extensive background in the profession. Take Alanna Bezas, a 2022 graduate of Millersville’s undergraduate program. She began her freshman year as an undeclared major and first read about the program online. “At the time, it was a multidisciplinary studies program called environmental hazards and emergency management, and the required courses combined a lot of my interests. There were many different paths you could take after graduation, which I found appealing.” During a meeting with Dr. Sepi Yalda, Bezas says, “She painted a perfect picture, explaining the major and the opportunities available to me. I remember scheduling a phone call with her before I had even met her –she then became my thesis advisor in a full-circle moment!”

To enhance her educational experience, Bezas became the emergency response and enterprise resilience intern at NYU Langone Health in New York City and attended annual conferences with MU’s International Association of Emergency Managers. “Those conferences were excellent professional development for us; networking with professionals from around the country gave us a better understanding of what the industry entailed,” she shares.

Bezas is now a few months into her role as the regional planner at Providence Emergency Management Agency in Providence, Rhode Island, a position focusing on FEMA’s Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant. “The grant project focuses on building disaster resilience in areas ranked high on the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index in Providence and Boston by building stakeholder relationships and collecting data.” She says she’s learning a lot on the job by participating in flash flood activations, a full-scale active shooter exercise, emergency shelter-in-place exercise and more. “My proudest academic moment is simply the growth I’ve had in my field. I went from not knowing this career existed, to building my own connections and successes in emergency management, and Millersville’s opportunities played a huge role in that.” She says she’s appreciative of the industry’s focus on mentoring. “I’m grateful to everyone who lent their time to have a conversation with me during my job search process. I look forward to giving back to the up-and-coming emergency managers whose shoes I was once in!

Kat Walsh Makes an Impact with the American Red Cross

By Leah Reagan ’24

Disasters, whether natural or human-made, are inevitable and being experienced more frequently and with greater severity. The devastation and aftermath often leave hundreds or thousands of people traumatized and unable to cope with the emotional impact of the event and personal loss. Understanding this, and seeing it through a social work lens, Dr. Kathleen (Kat) Walsh, professor of social work, realizes the importance of responding to disasters. This is why she felt compelled to complete her yearlong sabbatical as a disaster mental health responder with the American Red Cross to use her knowledge and experience to assist people affected by disasters.

After living through the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing and feeling the effects it had on many people, including herself, Walsh decided to take a break from her job as a professor and chase her dream as a disaster mental health responder. “Through all the feelings of helplessness, one thing kept rising to the top and helped me to persevere and be more at ease with being still and staying put. It was the promise that as soon as I was able to, I would get back out and do more direct service in the world and make meaningful contributions. It was then that I decided to pursue my lifelong dream of being a disaster mental health responder.”

Walsh worked with the American Red Cross from 2020–2022, gaining experiences and different types of training locally that she would eventually apply to her work nationally. Throughout her time with the American Red Cross, while on sabbatical, Walsh worked in Fort Myers, Florida, with Hurricane Ian, in Selma, Alabama, with tornado recovery and in Pajaro/Watsonville, California, with flood recovery.

While providing direct services for the organization, she also provided expertise to her team. “In addition to the direct services provided, I worked with statewide, regional and local chapters to enhance my skills as a volunteer and offered my expertise to the leadership to enhance our local capacity, increase community partnerships and build field opportunities/volunteer opportunities related to the local community and university,” Walsh says.

Walsh explains that she learned many things during her experience as a disaster mental health responder. “It is almost impossible to convey with any degree of brevity the breadth, depth and meaning these experiences have had for me. I deployed four times during the last six months, and each experience was a unique gift to my lifelong learning. I have made lifelong connections with fellow volunteers and community members.”

She notes that this experience gave her many new goals and outlooks on life that will stick with her forever. “I have a new outlook on life, new professional goals and a desire to make positive change in ways I had not ever envisioned before. This was the most significant life experience I have had, and I feel honored and blessed with gratitude that I was able to do it.”

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