A practical exam for disaster

McDaniel students are tested on their studies by responding to a mock biological attack

Education Beat

December 11, 2005|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

It's two days after a sold-out concert at the Joseph B. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, where more than 2,000 music lovers were serenaded - and, unwittingly, poisoned at the hands of a bioterrorist who had covertly released an aerosol of plague.

Members of a Westminster emergency response team are huddled with the local mayor, cobbling together the city's strategy to deal with a possible outbreak of the pneumonic plague. They must put their heads together to present a solid plan to community officials and to reassure a near-panicked public.

For a group of McDaniel College students, the team effort is the culminating exercise of a class called National Security in a Changing World. It's their chance to put the book knowledge they have acquired during the past semester into practice.

"The goal is that students learn about national security and learn how to translate the classroom into a practical experience," says Volker Franke, a national security expert who has been teaching the course at McDaniel since 2001.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - which occurred during the course's first semester - Franke included further discussion about government response to terrorism.

"We had talked about terrorism, but it used to be two or so lectures," says Franke, who is also a case director for the National Security Studies program at Syracuse University in New York. "I revised the course to address those issues. Terrorism has become a bigger part of the course."

He says that in 2002 he incorporated a bioterrorism exercise in the class, but it was an ungraded discussion. Since then, he has developed a simulation exercise for students that takes them out of the classroom and engages them with community officials as they research the roles they must assume for the project.

Franke says he discussed his idea with then-Westminster Mayor Kevin Dayhoff and came up with a list of roles for the students.

"I asked him, `Who would your team be?" Franke says. "That's how we came up with the list of emergency responders. Then [Dayhoff] contacted other agencies within the county."

Dayhoff enlisted volunteers from various Carroll County offices, such as the health and public works departments.

The roles that Franke and Dayhoff decided would be critical to an emergency response team included: county emergency management coordinator, county health officer, city police chief, fire department spokesman, hazardous materials team chairman, city public works director and Carroll County Hospital Center's infection control coordinator.

This semester, the 14 students in Franke's class were divided into two teams and each participant was assigned one of seven roles on the emergency response team. During the course, they interviewed their real-life counterparts to gain an understanding of their roles and prepared descriptions of what they would bring to the situation.

"National security is not just about missiles, tanks and Marines," Franke says as the students arrived last week at a lecture room in Hill Hall for their mock disaster response planning drill, which counts for 15 percent of their grade.

"It starts at the local level," he says. "We have to bring it down to the level that pertains to them on a daily basis."

The exercise focuses on public officials' response to a bioterrorism attack in a command-center style arrangement. The students - in their roles as emergency responders - are seated at a semicircular table on one side of the room, while the real-life emergency responders are seated at an identical table across from them.

As part of the exercise, the real-life emergency responders listen as the students brief them on the status of the bioterror attack and the ensuing panic. The students then field a volley of questions from the experts.

"Mr. Incident Commander, you have thousands of people waiting for antibiotics and now you don't have enough. What's your plan?" Jeff Spaulding, Westminster's police chief, asks Mike Habegger, who has assumed the role of county health officer and director of the emergency response team.

"This is kind of unexpected," Habegger answers. "We will urge people to stay out of public places. It's very disturbing that people have not heeded our messages to stay home."

When one student suggests that local officials use a school as a quarantine site, the county's real health officer, Larry Leitch, questions that advice.

"Do you think it's wise to use a school building as a quarantine site?" Leitch asks. "Don't you think parents will be afraid to send their children back into that school?"

Students, undeterred, say they could use a large area, such as the gym, and install filters that would prevent bacteria from spreading to other parts of the building.

At two points in the exercise, students are given new information that they must quickly assess to reformulate their response plans.

In the end, the real-life emergency responders critique the students' response plans and their reactions to the evolving crisis. They tell the students how they would've responded had the exercise been real.

The students describe the exercise as eye-opening.

"With national security, you usually think, `What can we do to prevent terrorism?' " says student Donnie Bell. "But there's really not much we can do other than try to stop it. What we have to do is figure out how to react."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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