Disaster preparedness at ASU extends far beyond local response

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Whether caused by nature or instigated by people, disaster can strike anywhere, anytime, and communities must be ready to respond.

September is National Preparedness Month — a time for families, communities and organizations to plan for the unexpected — and Arizona State University occupies a unique place in this realm.

“From the emergency preparedness standpoint, we have people involved at different levels — local, county, state, federal,” said Allen Clark, executive director of ASU Preparedness and Security Initiatives. “We are doing some amazing things.”

ASU’s role in preparedness begins with readying the campus to respond during crises and extends to degree and certificate programs, with many initiatives in between that support government at all levels.

“For example, ASU has the state climatologist, Dr. Nancy Selover,” Clark said. “She helps the state of Arizona and the federal government predict weather trends and much more, which then helps us prepare as an institution as well.”

It all begins with campus readiness. ASU fields a dedicated expert and office that focus on planning emergency drills throughout the year, training campus emergency response teams and working with university leaders and units to spread the word about ASU’s response plans.

“Sheri Gibbons is the director of ASU Emergency Preparedness,” Clark said. “The emergency preparedness office is charged with making sure that the university and all the campuses are postured and ready for a wide range of emergencies.”

Extending just beyond campus, ASU faculty and students are engaged helping the city of Phoenix Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management prepare for crises. 

“We are leveraging visualization and online mapping tools such as operations dashboards to provide mapping capabilities and situational awareness,” said Melanie Gall, co-director of ASU’s Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security. ”As part of her capstone project, a grad student in the ASU Online Emergency Management and Homeland Security program, Nichole Fuller, is designing a technical operations dashboard for the city.”

ASU graduate student Nichole Fuller is creating an emergency management technical operations dashboard as part of her degree's capstone project. This image depicts a preliminary version of the dashboard. Fuller is pursuing a master's degree in emergencymanagement and homeland security with the College of Public Service and Community Solutions through ASU Online.

A preliminary version of the dashboard designed by Fuller is online.

A full-scale, multiday exercise in May held throughout Arizona tested and evaluated the state’s ability to support mass migration from Southern California in the event of a catastrophic earthquake there. Different parties from ASU participated in the drill, including Gall, who worked in the Phoenix Emergency Operations Center with the city’s geographic information system coordinator, Jim Jarvis, to help visualize the earthquake scenario.

“I created on demand web-based maps and kept the EOC informed with regard to traffic flows, shelter capacities, and more,” said Gall, who holds a PhD in geography.

Gall and other ASU colleagues also jumped into action when Hurricane Irma struck Florida in September 2017. Gall provided similar mapping support to the Florida Voluntary Agencies in Disasters organization after Irma. Her work helped map out welcome and distribution sites, as well as areas of “high social vulnerability” and high demands for assistance. The work has led to discussions with state of Florida emergency management leaders on how best to integrate voluntary agencies into governmental processes and procedures for resource requests.

“It is important to note that we are not reinventing the wheel or creating these tools from scratch,” Gall said. “There is a wonderful online community that shares their visualization tools which allows us to quickly stand up and tailor online maps to the city’s need.”

One of the largest disaster response collaborations currently involves ASU’s Help Center. Day-to-day the 24/7 Help Center serves as the one-stop shop for the ASU community to connect to school resources and customer service support. But since the 2013 reinvention of the Help Center, which was previously outsourced to local vendors, it has taken an active role in disaster response.

During a major on-campus crisis the Help Center becomes a pivotal source of information for the ASU community and the general public. The center has the technical capabilities and staffing to not only provide updates during crises but to guide people to resources and reunite them with their loved ones through a “reunification” process.  

With the exceptions of states prone to natural disasters, such as Florida and Texas, the type of capability the ASU Help Center provides is lacking in Arizona and across the country, said Clark. This makes the Help Center a key resource and a great example of a local, county and state partnership. 

State entities have taken notice of the Help Center’s capabilities and ASU is working with partners to leverage university resources.

“We are pleased to partner with Arizona State University as they have incredible capabilities and resources,” said Wendy Smith-Reeve, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. “Their centralized call center staffed by knowledgeable, well-trained operators is an extraordinary benefit and will help ensure we are ready to assist the community when an emergency does occur.”

Leveraging the Help Center’s 24/7 capabilities and “robust technology solutions” to support state entities makes sense and was born out of ASU’s charter and design principles, which among other mandates calls for the university to socially embed and serve the community, said Eric Dover, executive director with ASU’s University Technology Office who oversees the Help Center.

“It is a great honor to be able to use our services at the Help Center for the greater good of our Arizona family,” Dover said. “We are thrilled to be partnered with the city of Phoenix, Maricopa County and the state of Arizona.”

Beyond ASU’s preparedness for on-campus emergencies, support for local government agencies and faculty’s involvement in state drills and past real emergencies out-of-state, the university is also molding the next generation of emergency managers, Clark said. The College of Public Service and Community Solutions offers undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs in emergency management. 

“We are unique at ASU in that we’re engaged in emergency management at all levels,” Clark said. “It all ties together.”

Read more about ASU preparedness and planning.

Learn more about National Preparedness Month.