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Five things you didn’t know: Institute for Disaster Management

The Institute for Disaster Management, housed in UGA’s College of Public Health, is committed to solving grand challenges on the local, national and global scale by assisting more than 140 hospitals, 100 long-term care facilities and 500 community partners across Georgia in developing emergency response plans.

We sat down with Dr. Curt Harris (BS ’03, PhD ’08), associate professor and director of the institute, to learn how his team is paving the way in disaster training and how additional funding propels his team’s work forward.

The Institute for Disaster Management (IDM) facility boasts a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center.

The IDM recently moved into the Commissary, a facility on the UGA Health Sciences Campus, which will allow it to expand its research, teaching and service initiatives for community resilience in crisis. The center’s labs and workspaces support students, faculty and disaster management practitioners from around the world.

As the IDM recruits more faculty, staff and students, it needs to secure an unused portion of the building for further expansion. This would include the installation of a simulation center to train students and community partners in scenarios that mimic real-world disaster situations.

“Expansion would allow us to house more faculty and staff and create a simulation center where we would be one of the foremost disaster trainers, not only for the state of Georgia but potentially in the entire United States,” said Harris.

Multi-disciplinary faculty and staff lead the institute.

IDM researchers have an array of expertise ranging from radiation health and mass casualty simulation to psychology and public policy. But they all have a common mission: ensuring that when disaster strikes, help follows.

The collaborative team at IDM is dedicated to furthering research, knowledge and training as it relates to emergency management.

Recent research and training focuses included:

  • Community Disaster Preparedness: IDM designs and implements disaster exercises for hospitals, nursing homes and other health care organizations across the state.
  • Nuclear Attack Simulations: For decades, IDM scientists have conducted research on the consequences of nuclear detonation in urban areas, with a focus on the outcomes of medical casualty distributions.
  • Ebola patient full-scale exercise: IDM tested the notification processes, coordination decisions and resources needed to move patients with suspected or confirmed Ebola using both air (simulated) and ground transportation resources. The methods practiced can be applied to other cases of infectious disease outbreak, like COVID-19.

The IDM was awarded a three-year grant funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Civil Monetary Penalty funds (and extended for another year due to how well-received it’s been).

In 2018, the IDM used the grant to kickstart its Georgia Long Term Care Emergency Preparedness Educational Program (GA LTCEPEP). The mission of the program is to provide preparedness and disaster exercise training to certified caregivers and administrators across the state.

Now in its fourth year, the LTCEP has trained over 1,200 staff members, representing over 80% of Georgia’s certified long-term care facilities. The IDM also delivers emergency preparedness kits (filled with items valued at $1,000 per kit) to participating nursing homes.

IDM's emergency preparedness kit

The IDM delivers these emergency preparedness kits to long-term care facilities across the state.

“The kits are filled with really good resources, like emergency blankets and car battery chargers, that can be used in a disaster setting,” said Harris.

IDM offers one of the only Master of Public Health degrees with a concentration in disaster management.

The IDM teaches courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, offering a master’s concentration in disaster management, graduate and undergraduate certificates and an undergraduate minor. The goal is to broaden the emergency response workforce. IDM graduates provide service and leadership in public health around the globe.

“Speaking from the heart, I can say that I moved 800+ miles, away from friends and family, to a state where I didn’t know a single soul or the culture just to come to this program. I researched every school that offered both an MPH and a disaster management curriculum. The University of Georgia’s Institute for Disaster Management was the best in the country for what I wanted to study,” said Christopher Russo (MPH ’19).

The IDM focuses on experiential learning and gives students the opportunity to see, touch and wear equipment needed in the field.

“We provide our students with internships all over the world. We’ve had students go to places like Kenya, Australia and Israel to collaborate on international disaster management projects,” said Harris.

IDM led a community-wide effort to combat COVID-19.

During the pandemic, IDM faculty and staff participated on a COVID-19 task force and donated the majority of their personal protective equipment supplies to response efforts.

“We’re constantly extending resources through training, whether it’s training of our students or community-level training, and we don’t always have the ability to recoup those supplies,” said Harris.

Private support is essential to the IDM’s success.

The IDM relies on donations and contributions from the community in order to ensure a safer tomorrow. The Institute of Disaster Management Fund supports opportunities for special programming, conference attendance, recruitment, professional education, and overall enhancement of the Institute.

Erika Parks Headshot

Where commitment meets community: Erica Parks (MPH ’11) advocates for veterans

Erica Parks (MPH ’11) refers to herself as a “vetpreneur.” The UGA alumna leverages her experiences with the armed forces, public health and entrepreneurship to advocate for veterans through Camouflage Me Not.

The seed of advocacy was planted in Parks as a young girl, but her experiences in the United States Army Reserve and as a veteran helped the seed grow. When Parks deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2003, her leadership roles and a near-death experience taught her the importance of speaking up for herself and others.

“That time in Afghanistan means so much to me,” Parks said. “The unity I have with my comrades is unmatched.”

When she returned from deployment, Parks earned an undergraduate degree from Kennesaw State University and then applied to UGA’s Master of Public Health program. The program exposed her to health policy and the idea of working with veterans.

Parks founded Camouflage Me Not in 2018 to increase social awareness around veterans’ transition to civilian life. Through the advocacy nonprofit, she shares a specific message on behalf of veterans: “Don’t hide me.”

Erica Parks (MPH ’11) served as a medical supply sergeant with Fort Gillem’s 427th medical logistical battalion in the United States Army Reserve. Parks served almost nine months of active duty in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2003.

The need for support

After earning her master’s degree, Parks experienced 38 months of chronic unemployment. She felt that as a woman of color and a veteran, that she was overlooked and undervalued.

“The song says, ‘And the Army goes rolling along,’” Parks said. “And it does.”

The armed forces offer housing, training, and employment services to members. When veterans transition to civilian life, many of those services are no longer available, Parks said. Women and minorities may feel the challenges of the transition into veteran status even more deeply—as Parks knows from her own experience.

“There is so much training to prepare a soldier, but not the same training when they leave,” Parks said. “Transition programs need a serious overhaul.”

 

Erica Parks (MPH ’11) was honored at the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s inaugural Veterans in Business Awards with the Veteran Owned Business Award. The audience listens to a video of Parks discussing her military service, lessons learned from service, Camouflage Me Not and her transition from the military to the business world.

Starting conversations

Through advocacy, research, and collaboration, Camouflage Me Not ignites conversation around veterans’ transition and uses public health initiatives and current issues to start a conversation around veteran transition. Since founding the organization, Parks has brought veterans non-veterans to the table while partnering with communities and local governments. But Parks isn’t stopping there.

Her next goal is to attain 501(c)(4) status, which transform Camouflage Me Not into a social welfare organization. With this status, Camouflage Me Not can extend the conversation about veteran transition to legislative assemblies through lobbying.

“Camouflage Me Not means don’t hide me and don’t throw me away,” Parks said. “I’m committed to people who deserve support but might not know what they need.”

Camouflage Me Not presents “Food for Thought – Mental Nourishment for Everyone.” In partnership with Atlanta Metropolitan State College, Lotus Family Wellness Clinic, Radio One, Mental Health America, Erica Parks (MPH ’11) and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Lamont Christian served as co-hosts.

Advocating for the next generation

After UGA prepared Parks to launch her nonprofit, Parks dedicates time to UGA’s next generation of change-makers. She helped establish the UGA Black Alumni Leadership Council and was named a Class of 2016 40 Under 40 honoree. She is also a member of the College of Public Health Alumni Working Group dedicated to connecting and uniting alumni of the College of Public Health.


WHERE COMMITMENT MEETS COMMUNITY

Whether life takes them to new cities or to the neighborhoods where they grew up, Georgia Bulldogs do more than get jobs – they elevate their communities. Bulldogs lead nonprofits, effect change and create opportunities for others. Wherever people are suffering, wherever communities are looking for effective leaders and whenever the world cries out for better solutions, Bulldogs are there to answer the call to service. It’s more than our passion. It’s our commitment.

Caroline Odom, an intern with UGA’s Division of Development and Alumni Relations, brings you a spring blog series that celebrates Bulldogs who embrace that commitment to helping others in their communities thrive.

Want to read about other Bulldogs impacting their communities?