‘Master’s of disaster’ program expands its focus

Mock press conference
From left: Program participants Joe Long, Brian Landon and Paul Sherrod conduct a mock press conference. The exercise is part of a master’s program at UChicago’s Graham School in threat and response management.
Photo by
John Zich
University Communications

When the University of Chicago Graham School began its master’s program in threat and response management a decade ago, in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, the anthrax attacks of 2001 and Hurricane Katrina, it focused on the public sector’s response to catastrophic events. But since then, emergency management has evolved, with professionals in the field increasingly being called upon to plan and act.

“To put it simply, there are more events, and more complex events than ever,” said Marsha Hawk, who has directed the program since its inception. “Storms are more violent. Active shooter events occur more frequently. Businesses must ensure continuity of operations in the wake of a disaster. Geographic boundaries are blurred. Cyber attacks are increasingly disruptive. And schools must be secured.”

In response, the Master of Science in Threat and Response Management program, or “master's of disaster,” is hitting the refresh button: The goals are to enlarge the program; focus more on the private sector—corporations, churches, retailers, not-for-profits, etc.—and public/private partnerships; and ensure that the program reflects the diversity of people working in the relatively new and rapidly evolving field of emergency management.

Society needs highly trained emergency managers to respond to these growing threats, Hawk said. “They must be creative, flexible and agile, with the academic grounding, practical skills and leadership capabilities needed to guide organizations and communities through crisis.”

Mastering and managing technology

Instructors in the program are at the forefront of the field and have years of real-world experience. Donald Zoufal, who has been teaching “Evolving Technologies in Emergency Management” for six years, emphasizes that threat and risk management tools change continually and dramatically. Recently, drones, miniaturization, social media and virtual reality have been hot topics.

Another emerging technology involves using aggregators to pool information from a variety of public and private sources, including cameras, monitors, databases and social media platforms.

“There are a wide variety of tools to help deal with complex problems,” said Zoufal, president of CrowZnest Consulting. “But you have to understand these tools so you can decide how to use them with proper governance. In addition, you have to think about the unintended consequences and challenges to privacy that the use of these tools will spark.”

Chicago police officer Cheryl Brown-Talley, MScTRM’15, found Zoufal’s class applicable to her new job. Partly due to the program, she was promoted to the Information Services Division, which early this year enhanced the use of ShotSpotter. This technology relies on strategically placed sensors and analytic software to determine almost immediately where a gun has been fired.

“Before I took the class, I didn’t know about all of the available technologies and how they could impact the community,” she said. “Then I went from being a police officer in a squad car to one on the inside, where these new technologies are selected and implemented.”

Students prepare for the future

Most of the 43 students currently enrolled in the two-year master’s program are employed in a variety of jobs, such as first responders, policymakers, medical professionals, public health officials and security personnel. Some of them travel from the West and East coasts to attend. To accommodate these students, the program holds three days of intensive classes downtown Chicago over three weekends each quarter.

First-year students take required courses; second-year students have to complete a capstone highlighting a particular problem and proposing a comprehensive solution. Some recent capstones reflect the broad and expanding range of areas with which emergency management personnel must deal. They called for use of crowd-sourcing data to characterize a threat or disaster, standards of care and a fair triage system that consider the needs of the disabled, a trauma response kit and training regimen for teachers and school staff, and a program to prepare civilians to deal with an active shooter incident.

After Jill Ramaker, MScTRM’11, graduated she became executive director of the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy and led its conversion from a small organization that trained firefighters to a large multidisciplinary center that trains a variety of first responders.

“The educational benefit of the program is that it exposes students to a wide range of possibilities. That leads to more robust planning for the organizations that the graduates serve,” she said. “The ability to write policies and educate staff is 95 percent of the effort. Having a complete program in place, along with ensuring that personnel know what to do when something actually does happen, is a never-ending cycle.

“The program has stuck with me and given me the knowledge and confidence I need to keep moving forward,” Ramaker added.

David Gervino, MScTRM’13, an external affairs officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, agreed. “I was able to learn firsthand from top-notch faculty and guest speakers that were not only instrumental in conducting disaster response and recovery operations, but who had also been heavily-involved with crafting many of the policies and procedures that are now considered best practices throughout the field. Today, that knowledge continues to benefit me in my role as I deploy to disasters of all types and sizes throughout the U.S.”