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Emergency Management Program Preps Pros for Natural Disasters

March 17, 2011


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MACOMB, IL -- As Japan continues to struggle with the devastating effects of last week's earthquake and tsunami, many media outlets have published reports covering how the United States would deal with a similarly sized disaster. In Illinois, this year in particular, the preparation for such an earthquake-incited disaster was already top of mind for many emergency management professionals, as 2011 is the bicentennial of the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes that struck the Midwest.

To help the region and nation prepare for such an earthquake-caused disaster and the toll such an event would take on human life, infrastructure and nuclear power facilities -- Illinois is the home of six operating nuclear power plants with 11 reactors at those plants -- the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are conducting a National Level Exercise this May, in which Western Illinois University's students and faculty in the emergency management program (in Western's health sciences department) will be participating.

According to Jack Rozdilsky, assistant professor in the emergency management program, the purpose of the exercise is to prepare and coordinate a multiple-jurisdictional integrated response to a national catastrophic event, such as an earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone. Rozdilsky specializes in natural hazards and emergency management issues, and his research in the disaster field focuses on the social and physical aspects of long-term disaster recovery. He noted that students he teaches in Western's emergency management program encounter coursework that addresses the emergency management implications of radiological emergencies. He said that nuclear power plant emergencies are among the low-probability, high consequences-type of disasters that residents of Illinois may potentially face.

"The Japanese nuclear emergency started with the impacts of the rare large magnitude earthquake and tsunami overwhelming both the primary and secondary safety systems of one of the nuclear power plants tasked with supplying electricity to Japan," Rozdilsky explained. "Similarly to Japan, the state of Illinois has a high concentration of nuclear power plants supplying electricity to the state. At present, the six operating nuclear power plants are generating 49 percent of the state's electricity. If Illinois were a country, we would rank about seventh in the world for nuclear power generation," he added.

Rozdilsky noted that most of the nuclear power facilities in Illinois are situated in the northern one-third of the state, which has lower seismic risks because the New Madrid fault seismic zone is located in the southern part of the state.

"The New Madrid seismic zone is a series of faults running beneath the surface from Cairo (IL) for 150 miles southwest toward Arkansas. It crosses five state lines and crosses the Mississippi River in at least three places," Rozdilsky explained. "In Illinois, nuclear power plants are mostly located north of interstate highway 80, with the southernmost reactor located in central Illinois in DeWitt County. The nuclear power station located in closest proximity to Macomb is the Quad Cities Station, located approximately 100 miles to the north. This site near Cordova has two operating reactors. In the event of a radiological emergency at the Quad Cities Station, emergency plans are in place for four counties in Illinois and Iowa within a 10-mile vicinity of the reactors."

Preparing the Professionals
Western's emergency management program started in 2007 and is the first one offered by a public or private university or college in Illinois. It remains the only one in the state, and Rozdilsky pointed out that it is one of a very few programs like it in the country.

"There are probably about 25 institutions that offer programs similar to ours at the bachelor's level. There are many other programs that offer certificates and online training, but our program at Western focuses on comprehensive emergency management, as opposed to just training in specific procedures," he said.

Mark Kelley, chair of the health sciences department at Western, noted there is growing demand for the program, and as a result, the department will add a new faculty member next fall.

"In addition to faculty members like Dr. Rozdilsky, with expertise in natural disaster long-term recovery, our department's faculty includes expertise in man-made disasters, terrorism and disaster education. Dr. Jamie Johnson, another faculty member in our program, has expertise in the public health side of man-caused disasters and does consulting work with law-enforcement agencies. In fall 2011, Dr. Heriberto Urby, whose background is in the area of emergency management in public administration, will be joining the program," Kelley explained.

As part of the emergency management curriculum this spring, Western's students will have the opportunity to participate in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FEMA National Level Exercise 2011, which will include a simulation of an earthquake occurring in the New Madrid seismic zone.

"It is planned as a functional exercise, in which agencies and jurisdictions are provided with a scenario to test their plans and skills in a real-time, realistic environment. The purpose of such exercises is to gain an in-depth knowledge that only experience can provide. Both state emergency-management authorities and local-level emergency management offices in the southern one-third of the state will be participating this May. WIU emergency management students will have the opportunity to be participants by observing how command posts and statewide emergency operation centers operate during the earthquake simulation," Rozdilsky noted.

The students' participation in the National Level Exercise in May is one of many ways Western's emergency management program supplies them with opportunities for learning from emergency management professionals in the field. According to Rozdilsky, during Spring Semester 2010, representatives of the Illinois Radiological Task Force visited the WIU-Macomb campus to provide emergency management students with real-life insights about the field and its practices in regard to radiological emergencies. The task force is a part of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency -- Division of Nuclear Safety, the state government agency with responsibilities for protecting Illinois' residents from the potentially harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

"The visiting team included health physicists, engineers, managers and technicians, who are trained to assist local emergency managers in responding to any radiological emergency. Students were introduced to basic radiological safety procedures and the capabilities and technical expertise that the state-based specialist teams can offer to local governments in times of radiological emergencies," he said.

During the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/FEMA National Level Exercise in May, Rozdilsky noted that students can expect to get an up-close view of how practicing emergency management professionals work with governmental agencies to deal with the aftermath of a sizable earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone.

"Similarly to what we are observing in Japan this week, an earthquake in range of the high magnitude of seven would create of series of complex emergency management issues. Some of the issues are possible to foresee, such as the need for immediate search and rescue team deployment and the danger of Mississippi River bridge collapses. Other problems, such as critical infrastructure failures and other secondary disasters, precipitated by the earthquake are more difficult to predict," Rozdilsky said. "One of the 1811 earthquakes that rocked the New Madrid region was approximately 7.7 magnitude. While there were no seismographs in the U.S. in the early 19th century, geologists have been able to interpret firsthand accounts of ground shaking, and they suggested that earthquakes of approximately that size occurred in northeast Arkansas in 1811."

Kelley added that Western's emergency management program provides a key resource for emergency management and governmental agencies that deal with natural and man-made disasters and that, someday, may have to deal with the fall-out of a sizable earthquake or earthquakes in the New Madrid seismic zone.

"Our emergency management program provides our students, future emergency management professionals, with the knowledge and training in the four phases of emergency management field: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Not only do they learn how to prepare emergency plans and procedures for natural and man-made disasters and the coordination activities necessary for the plans to be implemented, our program also provides students with effective emergency management networking skills that can be applied in both the public and private sectors, as well as in volunteer- and community-based organizations."

For more information about Western's emergency management program, contact Kelley at (309) 298-1076 or RM-Kelley@wiu.edu. For specific questions about long-term recovery from natural disasters or radiological emergencies, contact Rozdilsky at JL-Rozdilsky@wiu.edu.

Posted By: Teresa Koltzenburg (TE-Koltzenburg@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations