Course gives students peek into emergency management

December 07, 2020
a large piece of white paper taped to a door says Hurricane Dorian on top and is divided into two columns, saying What went well and What could we improve
Hurricane Dorian in 2019 didn't affect Charleston as badly as previous hurricanes, but part of emergency management is preparing for the worst and evaluating responses. Photo by Bryce Donovan

A casual conversation led to a new interprofessional class at the Medical University of South Carolina that gives students insight into how organizations handle emergencies.

Erik Modrzynski, Ambulatory environmental health and safety and emergency manager for MUSC Health, saw that future medical leaders were graduating without having encountered the basics of incident management, business continuity or crisis communication – all tools that medical center leaders use during incidents ranging from hurricanes to mass shootings.

While overseeing the drive-through COVID-19 testing site in West Ashley, Modrzynski mused to Mary Mauldin, Ed.D., that one of his professional goals was to develop a class that would give students knowledge about the common weak points of big organizations as well as the opportunity to earn Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certifications. He didn’t realize that in her role as associate director for education in the Office of Interprofessional Initiatives, Mauldin’s commitment to finding ways for students from all six of MUSC’s colleges to come together and enhance their educations would greenlight his plan.

“All of a sudden she comes back and says, ‘They’re interested; they want to hear more. Do you want to teach a class?’” Modrzynski recalled.

Modrzynski quickly put together the class, using his experience at MUSC Health as well as his previous career as a firefighter. Knowing that the students will disperse across the country after graduation to a variety of institutions, some of which have robust incident command systems in place while others might not, he developed a curriculum that combines book learning with opportunities to talk to professionals in the field who use the incident command system on a daily basis. Students can also earn FEMA certifications, which could help their resumes stand out.

two firefighters talk to an MUSC emergency manager outdoors 
Erik Modrzynski speaks with Charleston firefighters when the West Ashley coronavirus drive-through testing site was first established. Photo by Sarah Pack

Speakers included the chief of operations at San Bernardino County Fire Department – a department with celebrity status within the firefighting world, due not only to the immense geographic area it covers but also its massive fire battles of late, Modrzynski said – and MUSC Health’s own Johan Zamoscianyk, who was an EMT in New York on 9/11.

Stiles Harper, a second-year College of Medicine student, said the conversations with professionals set the class apart. The FEMA certification modules are a bit dry, he admitted. But, he added, the conversations with the fire chiefs drove home the point that they “live and breathe by this. This is not some theoretical concept.”

One of Harper’s career goals is to create modular self-sustaining clinics that can respond to the needs of the area where each is placed. He realized that the incident command system he’s learning about in this class could provide structure to such clinics.

“That's a tool that I could use to accomplish that goal,” he said.

A lot of the class has been eye-opening, in that he’s had a peek into the responsibilities of nonmedical staff at a medical center. One recent assignment required him to develop a one-minute statement to deliver to the media – a deceptively simple assignment, he said, that took dozens of tries.

“It gives me a whole new appreciation for when someone gets up in the public eye on TV and is charged with the responsibility of an update,” he said.

Emma Hawkins, also a second-year medical student, is from the Charleston area and therefore familiar with the annual hurricane season vigil. She appreciated learning about the behind-the-scenes structure that undergirds the medical center’s preparations.

“No matter what’s happening, we still have to provide the best care that we can to our patients,” she said.

She said the most interesting aspect of the class has been seeing how different professions apply the incident command system. To that end, the class broke out into groups for a “lessons learned” case study. Her group studied the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster to analyze the emergency response and the aspects that went wrong. The study drove home the importance of drills, she said.

“Plans don’t mean that much if you can’t act them out,” she noted.

That’s one of the key concepts that the guest speakers highlight, Modrzynski said.

“You have an incident with no system – it’s chaos,” he said. “You have an incident, and you have a defined incident management system and the protocols in place, and that takes the chaos and controls it. And they’ve seen that.”

"You have an incident with no system – it’s chaos.
You have an incident, and you have a defined incident management system and the protocols in place, and that takes the chaos and controls it. And they’ve seen that."

Erik Modrzynski
a group of people sits around a conference table with a lot of snacks on it and three monitors mounted on the wall showing different views 
The command center at MUSC Health during Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. Photo by Bryce Donovan

Nursing student Andrea Skoog, who attended every one of the optional coffee talks, said the discussion with Zamoscianyk about the immediate response to 9/11 was particularly illuminating.

“I was in high school when that happened, so I didn’t really fully grasp how daunting it was for the first responders,” she said. “And I’m an older student. I’m 33. I’m sure a lot of those younger students who were in elementary school or middle school really didn’t know, either, so I think it was a really good perspective to hear firsthand from someone who was involved.”

A military veteran with an undergraduate degree in public health, Skoog said she wanted to take the class for the opportunity to obtain the FEMA certifications.

“I wanted to be able to respond appropriately and be a leader,” she said, referring to times when crises happen.

She’s happy to see that the course will be offered again, as she knows several other nursing students who wanted to take it but couldn’t get in.

Medical student Rachael Smith said she signed up for the class because she has so many police officers in her family, and she was interested in seeing how police, fire and medical responders work together. Her favorite aspect of the class has been seeing the breadth of professionals who make use of the incident command system.

“I go to some of the coffee chats they host on Thursday mornings, and they’ve talked about earthquakes and fires and 9/11 – so many different things,” she said.

It’s good to start thinking about the coordination behind a mass casualty event, she said. She envisions that in a high-stress situation in the hospital, ensuring that everyone knows their roles and has planned for the worst-case scenarios would help dampen nerves.

That’s exactly right, Modrzynski said.

“I tell them, ‘The coursework that I give you is not supposed to stress you out. On the contrary, in the future, this coursework that we’re doing is supposed to help you not be as stressed out because you understand the process,’” he said.


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