April 05, 2011

Officer's training will aid all-hazards preparedness

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Russell Thomas, a police officer with Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Public Safety, recently completed a national emergency management exercise program designed to enhance disaster preparedness.

The Emergency Management Institute’s Master Exercise Practitioner Program assists participants from across the nation in learning how to conduct emergency exercises that range from tabletop discussions, functional simulated drills, and full-scale disaster exercises. Thomas, who has been with the Department of Public Safety for 17 years, attended the three, one-week sessions, in October, November, and March 20-25. Training for the select group was at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md.

Thomas is the police department’s all-hazards preparedness and crime prevention unit coordinator. He is one of 1,670 people in the nation to graduate from the national emergency management exercise program since its inception in 1999. FEMA paid the training costs.

Universities and colleges across Illinois are required to prepare an emergency operations all-hazards plan as part of the state’s 2008 Campus Safety Enhancement Act. SIUC conducted emergency exercises on campus even before the state law requiring the annual exercise, and police officers also received additional training from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Todd D. Sigler, director of the University’s Department of Public Safety, said the FEMA program was a “good opportunity at the government’s expense to have someone trained at a premium level.”

“We felt this puts the University in a unique position,” he said.

Thomas was one of 64 students from throughout the nation in the class. Students came from a wide area of disciplines including law enforcement, military, educational, and government personnel, Thomas said. He left with information needed “to conduct a well-organized exercise” consistent with standards set out by FEMA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he said.

A primary emphasis in the program is a need for consistency in training and communication in the event of actual events that require help from agencies outside of a stricken area, Thomas said. He notes the collaboration and cooperation present in the aftermath of the May 8, 2009, storm that hit the region.

“We have a responsibility to train our students, faculty and staff to be effective during a natural or man-made disaster,” Thomas said. “We need to be on the top of our game to make the campus as safe as we can.”

Departments across campus already have experience with tabletop and functional emergency exercises that involve telephones, the Internet and hand-delivered messages. An exercise in December focused on a chemical leak from a railcar near the campus.

The exercise was a success, but the post-event evaluation always looks for ways to improve, Thomas said. A next step is to conduct a full-scale exercise that involves the University, outside emergency responders and other agencies and facilities, including hospitals.

“It’s our desire to hold full-scale exercises,” Sigler said. “There is only so much that can be gained by sitting around a table discussing a disaster, and there is certainly some value in that.

“But at the point in which we have developed at SIUC in regard to our exercises, we feel there is more for us to learn by holding more of an ambitious full-scale exercise,” Sigler said. “There is a lot more that can be learned by actually being out in the field and putting resources to the test and working with other agencies, which is something we are interested in doing as well.”

Another benefit that the University receives from Thomas’ training is knowing emergency responders in other jurisdictions with the same training who are available to assist, if needed.

“It is invaluable to know your counterpart in another jurisdiction,” Sigler said. “Everybody knowing one another and being able to put a face and name together is an invaluable relationship.”