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Top Iowa State Students Learn Emergency Management

An honors seminar at Iowa State University takes some of the top students on campus through emergency response training that includes a realistic simulation of a tornado hitting campus.

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Iowa State students stage for a disaster simulation.
Iowa State
As a pre-med student at Iowa State University, Remy Braun works at a local hospital and has been on an ambulance crew for about a year.

So she was amazed by how realistic a simulated tornado response was as part of the honors seminar in emergency response she is enrolled in.

“I remember during our disaster simulation, I’m used to seeing people screaming and freaking out, and I froze initially even though I knew everyone was acting. It was just chaos," she said.

That was one of the surprises of the simulation, a testament to the honors seminar put together this past school year by Clayton Oliver, emergency manager for Environmental Health and Safety on campus.

Oliver used his previous experience in emergency management to develop the class and the simulation for the 20 students enrolled. He had previously held a similar position at the University of Kentucky and also worked as an emergency manager at Lexington County. When he arrived at Iowa State, he knew he wanted to get students involved in emergency management. He pitched the idea as one of the honors programs and got the go-ahead.

“The honors program will do regular classes but also the seminars, which are open to any faculty or staff to pitch a special topics course,” Oliver said. “It’s limited enrollment only, so we’re getting some of the smartest, most motivated future leaders.”

Oliver has incorporated the federal Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) curriculum in the program, including life-saving intervention and Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment protocol.

He uses local first responders and other professionals to aid instruction to give his students exposure to a broad range of professionals. “There is a lot of stuff I could teach, but I’d rather have a professional who actually does that stuff teach it because they have more experience and credibility,” Oliver said.

He takes the students over to a local fire station for search-and-rescue nights for interior search, extrications and patient movement instruction.

“I pulled one of my fire safety guys I work with here to do fire extinguisher and hazmat awareness training,” Oliver said. “We did a little bit of [Incident Command System training] to introduce them to the concepts and principles and get them set up for team organization.”

The seminar is pass/fail and consists of three major assignments. One is a group After-Action Report based on a case study, such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the I-35 West Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis. The students analyze the case study and, from what they’ve learned in the seminar training, determine how or if they could intervene and help during that disaster.

Another assignment is to identify an emergency preparedness gap or problem on campus and brainstorm a list of potential solutions. The class ended up with two solutions: One is having a more transparent policy for when classes are canceled or modified, and the other is having a pop-up clothing shop that would be activated for students who need low-cost winter apparel.

And then there’s the simulation.

“When I came here I had to build up the infrastructure for it because we didn’t have anything like it happening,” Oliver said. “At Lexington, we were running two or three exercises like this a year.”

Oliver collaborated with a theater professor who teaches a stage makeup and costume course, and they trained some volunteer students to make about 25 people look like victims, including one with a severed arm.

Oliver worked with the Department of Residence to secure a portion of a residence hall that wasn’t in use for the simulation. The victims ranged from the person with a severed arm to those with psychological issues who were getting in the way of triage.

“We had several victims who were not injured but had psychological conditions or levels of uncooperativeness that our students had to work through,” Oliver said. One victim was posting live on Facebook and another was looking for a lost dog. The students had to convince each to focus on human victims.

That psychological aspect of the seminar was another of the surprises for Braun.

“They took the time to talk about the emotions that first responders and citizens are going through in an emergency, and I didn’t expect that to be a topic,” she said. “I think it’s an important part of emergency response, and I’m glad it was something we discussed because you really don’t know how you’re going to respond until you get in that situation.”