TEACHING ABOUT VULNERABILITY AND MITIGATION: An empirical approach. June 2, 2014 Presentation at the 1st Annual Emergency Management Theory and Research Workshop. Emergency Management Institute, Emmitsburg, MD

FEMA launched its ‘Higher Education Project‘ back in 1994 as an effort to engage institutions  of higher education in the United States in the offering of courses, programs and degrees related to emergency management. The main objective of this project was to  contribute to the professionalization of the emergency management workforce throughout the country, this after six major disaster declarations in six years, from 1989 through 1994, which included hurricanes Andrew, Hugo and Iniki, major floods in the Midwest and two earthquakes in California, had shown the need to form professionals in this field to help manage events in our vulnerable country.

The main engine behind this project was its director B. Wayne Blanchard whom I met for the first time in 1996 as I in a pioneering effort of my own had developed two courses: ‘Hazard Mitigation‘ and ‘Vulnerability Analysis‘ that were offered as ‘special topics’ for the Master in Construction Management, at the College of Engineering and Computing, Florida International University (FIU).  These were the first courses on these topics to be offered by an institution of higher education in Florida.

Having actively participated in the  post-hurricane Andrew recovery phase, where I managed the hazard mitigation program, I was quite familiar with the huge need for training a workforce consisting mainly of FEMA reservists and temporary employees with a wide range of professional backgrounds and experience. I also recognized the need for introducing professional and science-based methods  to strengthen the practice of emergency management, and to start moving from the then prevailing practice to a model where emergency managers would have access to educational offerings provided by universities and colleges, allowing them to acquire professional management tools and even degrees to further their careers.

Toward that end, and inspired by FEMA’s Hi-Ed project, I tried to develop a program at FIU by  aggregating five courses (Hazard Mitigation, Vulnerability Analysis, Sociology of Disaster, The Politics of Disasters, and Natural Disaster Management) , including the two I had developed, on topics related to disasters, risk, emergency management that were already being taught complementing them with other ‘support’ courses to be identified. I remember inviting a group of FIU faculty members to discuss this idea and actually having Wayne Blanchard fly in for a one-day working meeting, where he offered important guidance and ideas for us to consider. Our group did not succeed in getting the intended program off the ground, as it perished in the quagmire of academic bureaucracy, but we all still remember the strong support, encouragement and suggestions we received from Wayne Blanchard as we tried to make a go of it.

On a personal note, I parlayed all the guidance and support offered by Wayne into an expanded program to offer K-20 education on aspects of emergency management. With this objective I first developed a continuing education program for individuals already in the field of emergency management or just management, who would benefit from an academic offering on important topics in the field of emergency management, but who had no time to go back  to college for another degree or who were just not interested in taking the time to acquire another degree. This program was designated ‘The Emergency Management and Hazard Mitigation Certificate Program‘. It consisted of seven two-day seminars offered in sequence at intervals of approximately 5 to 6 weeks. Continuing education credits were granted for each seminar completed by an individual, and a Certificate of ‘Specialist in Emergency Management and Hazard Mitigation‘ was awarded to those who completed the full series of seven seminars. The instructors core for this seminar series consisted of  ten active FIU faculty members in disciplines ranging from engineering, sociology, political science, economics and finance, to earth science, GIS, data management and visualization, vulnerability assessment and hazard mitigation, who were complemented by invited subject-matter experts from the public and private sectors.

At the other end of the scale I developed a second product designed for K-12 teachers so that they could include four basic concepts in topics they were already teaching. The four concepts were: vulnerability, hazard, damage, and mitigation, which were the core of a program I designated as ‘Developing a Culture of Mitigation through Education‘. The  program ‘educated’ teachers on the four key concepts and on the overall objectives and benefits of practicing vulnerability assessment and hazard mitigation, and it also encouraged take-home’ assignments or projects designed to be performed collaboratively between child and parents as well as involvement by the larger school  neighborhood community. This program was highly successful involving  a mix of local public and private K-12 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in Florida, and two foreign elementary schools in Jamaica and Costa Rica. Besides the teaching of the four key concepts using lesson plans, the project also fostered school-wide events for students to demonstrate their knowledge of the concept of mitigation by way of displays, exhibits or other deliverable, where a panel of  judges would review the students’ work to rank them by merit for awards in several categories. All children participating in the program received a ‘certificate’ from FIU – International Hurricane Center. This program received wide written and electronic media coverage, and it was also recognized by FEMA as an example of ‘Best Mitigation Practice’ on 2005.

I had the privilege of being invited to present on my experience teaching on the topics of vulnerability and mitigation at a first-ever special one-day ‘1st Annual Emergency Management Theory and Research Workshop‘, which was moderated by Jessica Jensen, Ph.D. in Emergency Management from North Dakota State University on Monday 2 June 2014, the day before the start of the ‘16th Annual Emergency Management Higher Education Symposium’. I titled my presentation ‘Teaching About Vulnerability and Mitigation: An empirical approach‘ (ALVAREZpresentation)