Graham School News

Emergency Response Drill Shows Master of Science in Threat and Response Management Students a New Perspective on Disaster Response

Philip Baker
Green fire exit sign

Earlier this summer, Aquarius Leonard and Anna Marie Avino, both students in the Master of Science in Threat and Response Management, participated as observers in the fifth annual Northwestern University and City of Evanston emergency response drill held at Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

Taking place over three days in August, Leonard and Avino followed along as fire department officials from Evanston and surrounding communities, as well as police officers, hazardous materials teams, and emergency medical personnel from local hospitals, responded to a simulated lab explosion designed to underscore the 2019 exercise theme of “trauma and pre-hospital patient care.”

As two active police officers—Leonard is a sergeant with the Chicago Police Department and Avino is an officer with the Norridge Police Department—both students brought their academic training as well as their professional experience and expertise to assessing the situation, which involved two trauma victims, a hazmat situation, as well as the tricky task of coordinating multiple jurisdictions and departments.

“It was hard at times to disconnect my instinctual professional response as a police officer and look at the situation from the lens of what we’ve been learning in the classroom,” said Leonard. “I immediately start thinking in terms of securing the perimeter, ensuring an egress way for medical workers, and about what we’re doing about the surrounding community—the students, dog walkers, people pushing strollers.”

But taking part in the drill as an observer and not an active participant also allowed her to appreciate the importance of such drills and the significance of having a plan in place. During an emergency, she noted, we typically revert to the level of our training.

“One thing that really stood out for me was a fireman who was juggling three separate radios,” she said. “Communication during an emergency is critical and radio interoperability continues to be a big problem that we haven’t completely solved yet. Watching the drill really brought that home to me. Figuring out a solution to that problem would make a great capstone.”

For her part, Avino took note of the caution with which the first responders approached the scene of the potentially hazardous chemical spill. Before moving into the hallway of the lab where the explosion had taken place, their assessment of the surrounding the air using a meter sensor led them immediately to incorporate their oxygen tanks and masks into their action plan.

“Every step forward was taken deliberately and with consideration for their own safety,” she said. “That’s one thing that really stood out for me as an observer—how important it was to have a plan in place for every eventuality. After all, if the first responders get hurt, they’re no use to the victims.”

Both Leonard and Avino highlighted the issue of communication and referred to lessons they’d learned while taking Catherine Foster’s class “Communications Strategy for Crisis Management.” Whether it was a matter of using as few words as possible to get your point across, or keeping your audience in mind when making your pronouncements, both saw how the lessons of clarity and conciseness were as applicable in emergency situations as at press conferences.

“An emergency room doctor in the post-mortem pointed to the significance of alerting emergency room workers prior to arrival at the hospital that it wasn’t just a burn situation, but a burn and chemical situation,” Avino said. “Just that one extra word—chemical—causes ER workers to initiate a series of steps that will save time and potentially lives once the victim arrives.”

“Being able to assess a situation in real time and know how to describe it to others and to know what messages to put out and how to put them out—all of that requires training and practice,” Leonard said. “As an observer with knowledge gained through the Master of Science in Threat and Response Management program, I was able to appreciate in a deeper way everything that’s already been coordinated and put in place before a successful emergency response is carried out.”