URI taking national leadership role in mass evacuation planning

$1.9 million Homeland Security grant combines first response,

psychological approaches to critical incidents

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 18, 2008 – The University of Rhode Island has been tabbed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop a national training program for mass evacuation planning for institutions of higher education.

Cmdr. Shad Ahmed, chief of URI’s Emergency Medical Services and director of the National Institute for Public Safety Research Training is the principal investigator for the three-year, $1.9 million grant. Through the grant, the Institute will research and develop a training curriculum targeting homeland security planning officials to increase the survival rate in the event of critical campus incidents. The training program will introduce basic concepts in mass evacuation, disaster psychology and the mechanics of pedestrian evacuation via Web-based and on-site delivery.

The grant from the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency is part of more than $27 million in funding awarded nationwide to develop and deliver innovative training programs addressing high-priority national security needs under the Competitive Training Grants Program. URI is one of 11 institutions nationally to be chosen for this program, which is designed to be a catalyst for strengthening national preparedness initiatives for first responders, public officials and citizens.

The Institute at URI was established earlier this year with the goal of facilitating research and training in all disciplines of public safety, particularly emergency management and homeland security. Its goal is to link academic research with practical applications for emergency responders. The Institute follows efforts by the URI Police Department and URI EMS to facilitate regional law enforcement and EMS training.

“There are very few venues for getting results from academic research incorporated into emergency responders’ training, and nationally that has been lagging,” Ahmed said. “We hope to facilitate this process so emergency responders are always one step ahead.”

In awarding this grant, Homeland Security has recognized the level of expertise URI has to offer, not just in the area of emergency response, but a wide range of related academic disciplines.

“President [Robert L.] Carothers, Vice President for Administration Robert Weygand and others have put the University in a position to lead this effort,” Ahmed said. “They had the foresight to take on this Institute, and then we were awarded this grant, which validates our efforts over the last few years. This is an opportunity for the University to help shape the approach taken by institutions all across America.”

The project will focus on “communities within communities,” such as colleges and universities, and will work closely with state and local emergency response agencies. The project team represents several areas of life at URI, including public safety officials and psychology professors who are experts in human behavior. They will develop a four-course curriculum that will teach other institutions and emergency officials how to properly develop their own emergency evacuation plans.

Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the shootings at Virginia Tech and other college campuses, Homeland Security has pushed for emergency response teams at all levels to conduct themselves in a more uniform manner. Improving communication among groups that must work closely in crises is a primary goal.

Working with Ahmed on the response side of the project are Robert Drapeau, URI director of public safety, Joshua Manfredo, deputy chief of URI EMS, and Lt. Michael Donahue of the URI Police. Team members Charles Collyer, psychology professor, Natacha Thomas, professor of civil engineering, Anne Balboni, clinical director of the Rhode Island Crisis Management Team, all provide expertise on human behavior. Pamela Rohland, assistant director of student life/disability services, and Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist with the National Fire Protection Association, are involved with incorporating special needs populations into the curriculum. Fraser is the author of the NFPA’s “Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities.”

“In developing the curriculum, we are taking a multi-faceted view using many different disciplines,” Ahmed said. “With mass evacuation plans, it is important to understand possible situations from everyone’s perspective.”

The first course will be a Web-based course that will serve as an introduction to concepts in mass evacuation planning. Another course will involve Ahmed and other project team members visiting other institutes for two-day training sessions to help identify appropriate campus needs.

“When we visit other institutions, we will not be there to tell them what to do, but rather what factors they need to consider and what questions they need to ask when developing their own plans,” Ahmed said. “We will give them the tools and the ideas to work with, but it will be up to the various institutions to develop plans appropriate for their areas.”

As part of the project, Ahmed plans to develop an online community that will enable first-response groups to share ideas and ask questions of other groups. The goal is to have plans from various institutions across the country available for downloading, so groups may be able to adapt their own plans as needed.

“When it comes to disaster response, it takes a team effort,” Ahmed said. “Our goal is to come together and do something for the country as a whole, for the communities we all serve. Anything we do is for the well being of our communities.”

Also working with Ahmed is graduate research assistant Katherine Nadeau (project coordinator) and Lt. Katherine Axford, URI EMS, who will be the technical design coordinator for the project.

The grant is the first for URI for a non-traditional principal investigator. Ahmed is completing his masters in business administration. He has several certifications and advanced training in Homeland Security and emergency management.