BY JOE MARIO PEDERSEN
ORLANDO – The Sunshine State faces its fair share of dangers. Some occur naturally like hurricanes while others are man-made moments of fear from the end of a barrel.
With disasters showing no sign of decrease, Florida universities are preparing their students with crisis management programs shaping leaders for incoming incidents.
“We are seeing more disasters and the intensity of disasters has risen,” said Claire Knox, the emergency management and homeland security program director at the University of Central Florida. “Not to be a ‘Debbie downer,’ but Florida has sea water levels on the rise; we have wildfires, sinkholes and hurricanes. We have international airports that have the potential to open pandemics.”
Florida has a lot going on.
UCF first offered a minor degree in 2003 in emergency management and homeland security, but as the frequency of disasters has increased, so too has the interest in disaster and crisis management.
Last fall UCF opened bachelor’s and master’s degrees in emergency and crisis management. The program has been nationally recognized as the seventh-best graduate studies emergency management degree in the country as a result of its faculty publishing the most on the subject in the nation, Knox said.
Those publications are also the second-most cited in the United States, according to Knox.
“We have some of the most professional and experienced people in the field,” Knox said. “They’ve been involved in all kinds of organizations and natural disasters. People come from all over the world to shadow them.”
‘ALL KINDS OF CRISES’
Florida Atlantic University has also seen a rise in its public administration degree, which offers an interdisciplinary program in disaster and emergency management, said Alka Sapat, a professor in the program.
The program started in 2011 with 20 students and has since grown into a body of 320 students, Sapat said.
“We see hurricanes, we have shootings and a lot of people are wanting to be in this field, but also people already in the field are coming to us wanting to further their knowledge,” Sapat said.
St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara is one such member in the emergency field who came to the program to get his degree and go through the emergency management program.
“A lot of people already in the industry join wanting to protect their communities better,” Sapat said. “We see all kinds of crises here in Florida. … We have to keep up with new hazards and making sure that our students are aware of the administration skills they need.”
Among those seeking to know more about emergency management is Maureen McCann, certified meteorologist of Spectrum News 13.
“For me, it’s more about applying meteorology toward a societal impact; how the weather impacts people and how it impacts decision makers,” said McCann who is currently studying in UCF’s master’s emergency and crisis program after she reports the morning weather. “What’s so great about the curriculum is that a lot of the cases we study are past hurricanes, which gives you a different perspective on storms like Matthew and Irma.”
Just some of the administrative, decisive factors students learn about include budgeting, financials, environmental policies and the necessity of clear communication.
“The most valuable thing I’ve learned is providing more context to what I’m saying, making it easier for people to understand how serious something might be without being an alarmist,” McCann said.
As an example McCann pointed toward the use of the term “thunderstorm watch,” which without context might not sound as dangerous or impending as the phrase “thunderstorm warning.”
“If I was talking about a thunderstorm watch, that means conditions are favorable in the next eight hours for lightning to strike an area,” McCann said. “It’s important to get the right information out there in an emergency, and it’s important to understand how key decisions are being made when a storm is approaching.”
Clear communication remains one of the biggest lessons to learn in the UCF emergency management program, as Knox said the greatest failures in times of disaster have come from unclear or incomplete communication.
The wide variety of disasters in Florida’s past has made handling them the focal point of study.
After Category 5 Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992, emergency management took on a new role of importance, Knox said.
“You look at the response to Hurricane Andrew and the Lewis report, that’ s when Florida became the leader in emergency management,” Knox said. “It changed how we look at everything in the structure of emergency management. It changed how we build houses.”
It also put Florida on the path of creating enough evacuation shelter spaces through new construction or retrofitting existing building, according to Floridadisasters.org.