New Classes Teach Rescuers How to Lessen Disasters' Impact

Imagine earning a college degree that relates to somebody, or even a community, having a bad day. A really bad day. Perhaps even catastrophic.

The newly created emergency management degree at Arkansas Tech University here does just that, focusing on earthquakes, floods, mud slides, and technological dangers like hazardous spills, nuclear-power emergencies, and terrorism.

While homework on hurricanes and field work on fires may sound a bit grim, it's a discipline of growing importance. In a record-breaking year of El Nino-spawned storms hitting homes and businesses from California to Florida, the expertise of rescue teams that can reduce casualties and damage is at a premium.

"Disasters have become an entire industry," says Mary Ann Rollans, dean of the School of Community Education and Professional Development at ATU. "It's big business as ... disasters happen around the world and people see them on TV, it calls more attention to planning and mitigating, and a need for people who know how to do this."

When the program started last fall, Dr. Rollans expected only a small number of students. To her surprise, 40 students - many of them older and already working in emergency services - are now enrolled in classes that will earn them a bachelor of science degree in emergency management.

Barry Walker, a young retiree from the US Coast Guard, signed up last fall. As a California transplant to Arkansas, Mr. Walker had worked on a strike team during canyon fires in California. Arkansas Tech's program, which concentrates on flexible schedules and offers online courses, gave him immediate credit for previous hands-on experience, creating an "externship" and eliminating a need for him to participate in an internship.

"Finally, this field is coming into its own as a profession, and that can only be good for everyone," says Walker.

While the degree won't prevent calamities, four-year programs like the one at ATU could improve the way communities prepare for and handle a crisis. "With programs like this, the country will spend less on disasters, because there are trained professionals to help people become well-prepared," says Marc Wolfson, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

A smart investment

Mr. Wolfson says for every dollar spent on preparedness, $2 are saved in ultimate disaster costs. This can translate into billions of dollars, especially given the recent weather. Since January, President Clinton has declared 15 disasters from El Nio floods in California to East Coast ice storms. Federal assistance has already topped $10 million in California alone.

According to the United Nations, economic damages from natural disasters worldwide have tripled in the past 30 years - escalating to $120 billion in the 1980s. And Arkansas Tech wants to graduate students who can curb these statistics.

Located only a few miles from a nuclear-power plant, the university is the second school in the United States to offer a bachelor's degree in emergency management. North Texas State University in Denton began a program in 1982. Here students take courses such as "Living in a Hazardous Environment" and "Politics of Disaster." Several online courses are taught by professors or experts in the field, who are as far away as Florida.

The idea for the degree evolved when a university board member learned that Kay Goss, a top FEMA official from Arkansas, advocated that every state start such a program. Rollans wasted no time. She went to Washington to meet with FEMA officials, who wanted to encourage the spread of emergency management-related education in colleges across the United States.

"This gives people who want to be emergency managers a career direction as opposed to just having an occupation," says Rollans. "Firefighters, paramedics, and safety officers can now be as professional as ... anyone else who has a degree."

Mike Williamson, a student who also works as a paramedic and received 24 hours credit for his experience, agrees.

"There's this idea that anyone can be trained for a job," says Mr. Williamson. "This degree balances training with education and hopefully will let me move into a management position."

The skills students learn

When a flood or tornado hits, graduates will know how to deal with media, organize volunteers, and assess statistics, as well as implement disaster plans and aid in a rescue operation. With all this knowledge and experience, the opportunities appear limitless.

"We are seeing that more and more businesses are initiating these programs in their own businesses because of hazards in the environment," says Rollans.

More colleges are gearing up for a future in emergency-management education. Arizona State University in Tempe will offer a bachelor's degree in emergency management and fire science this fall. And a new program at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg is projected to start in 1999.

"We are actively encouraging colleges and universities to develop programs," says FEMA's Wolfson. "It's an exciting major, and this business gets in your blood.... We need people with this degree out there in the field when disaster hits."

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