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FIU students get hands-on experience in large-scale disaster response
FIU students during interagency disaster simulation field course

FIU students get hands-on experience in large-scale disaster response

The interagency simulation prepare students for careers in disaster management

June 7, 2024 at 2:49pm

FIU recently hosted a dynamic, two-day disaster field course at its Biscayne Bay Campus that brought together professionals from local agencies and nongovernmental organizations with elected officials to help run high-level exercises intended to prepare graduate students soon to step into leadership roles to be ready for anything. Offered through FIU’s Academy for International Disaster Preparedness, the activity served to give those studying for advanced degrees a high-level simulated experience. 

“This exercise is the linchpin of our program and critical to our students graduating prepared to lead in a disaster scenario,” said Javier I. Marques, Executive Director for AIDP and Vice President for Operations and Safety and Chief of Staff. “We appreciate our partners with whom we train and form bonds of trust that are essential in navigating the uncertainty that comes with disasters.”

Each year, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, and floods impact communities across the U.S. and around the world. With NOAA National Weather Service forecasters predicting an above average 2024 hurricane season, the demand for a well-prepared disaster management workforce that can meet the needs of affected communities has never been greater.

“Florida International University is a leader in operations-based disaster response, demonstrated here today during their full-scale exercise, which rises to the level of the highest standard in Florida, if not the U.S.,” said Florida Division of Emergency Management Executive Director Kevin Guthrie, who attended the exercise and spoke to students. “These exercises are where people get their boots dirty, and they are incredibly important to not only practice onsite incident management, but also improve everyone's understanding of the intricacies involved in the response and recovery process.”

The field course is part of FIU’s Master of Arts in Disaster Management, a 30-credit graduate program focusing on disaster preparedness, emergency management and humanitarian assistance/coordination. The program’s curriculum is interdisciplinary and designed to improve the skills and theoretical base of disaster practitioners and those interested in entering the field of disaster management.

“This program has provided me with the tools that I needed in my toolbox to help me get out there and be a better responder,” said Michael Stacks, an FIU student participating in the field course, which puts students to the test under grueling conditions. “The biggest 800-pound gorilla in the room will be the weather—if we can manage the weather, we’ll be fine. We have the knowledge and the skills, it’s a matter of applying them.”

Responding to a hurricane

During the first day of the field course, participants transform into disaster coordinators tasked with responding to the aftermath of a fictional category 5 hurricane that pummeled the Caribbean. From getting briefed ahead of deployment to making landfall at ground zero, participants are taken through the stages of a full-scale disaster operation. Throughout the day, participants meet with victims and survivors, role-played by volunteers and experts in the disaster management field, to learn about their humanitarian needs and assess the destruction left behind by the storm. The exercise is designed to be as realistic as possible, so participating agencies will lend assets like helicopters, marine vessels, drones, and other resources to help participants get the full experience of managing a large-scale disaster response.

On the second day, roles change, and participants are deployed as humanitarian responders tasked with providing immediate relief to hurricane survivors. Throughout the two days, students will complete several assignments—from conducting damage assessments to writing press releases—to test curriculum objectives and the ability of students to adapt to a disaster scenario.

“It’s important for our students to understand what it’s like to respond to a disaster in different capacities,” said Dulce Suarez, Assistant Director for AIDP. “Whether they are a disaster worker or a humanitarian, they need to walk away from this exercise knowing how to work with diverse teams, manage resources effectively, and communicate clearly under pressure.”

The field course, one of the largest of its kind, is made possible with the support and participation of agencies and organizations across academia, healthcare, public, nonprofit, and private sectors.

Participating agencies and organizations include: Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM), Florida State Guard (FSG), Baptist Health South Florida, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR), City of Miami Fire Rescue/Emergency Management/USAR FL - TF-2, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), United States Coast Guard (USCG), Miami-Dade County Emergency Management (OEM), Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD), Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department (WASD), Village of Key Biscayne Fire Rescue, City of Miami Beach Fire Rescue, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), United States Agency for International Development (SAID), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Food for the Poor (FFTP), DHL, AT&T, Global Empowerment Mission (GEM), Seminole Office of Emergency Management, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, FIU Parking and Transportation, FIU Police Department and others.