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Disaster drill gives ETSU students real-world test

March 22nd, 2014 9:47 pm by Max Hrenda

Disaster drill gives ETSU students real-world test

ETSU public health students participated in a low-resource, third-world disaster simulation Saturday at the school's Valleybrook campus. (Photos by Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)

KINGSPORT — For a select group of East Tennessee State University students, disaster struck.

But then, that was the idea.

On Saturday, students participated in a simulated third-world disaster during the Valleybrook Refugee Experience at ETSU’s Valleybrook campus in Kingsport.

The event was organized in part by ETSU public health associate professor Mike Stoots, who said he wanted to challenge his students in a real-world, low-resource setting.

“We created what we call the refugee experience,” Stoots said. “We’re trying to get our students to think about that and how they can apply their training and skill sets in those areas where you may not have everything we have here to work it.”

While the event was given a “third-world” theme, recent public health graduate Dawn Sharp said the lessons taught in the simulation can apply to certain domestic situations as well, like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“You never know when we’re going to have a natural disaster ... and have these situations,” Sharp said. “Even if it’s only two or three days, they will need clean water, and we know how to give it to them.”

Because disaster circumstances can apply in any setting, doctoral student Beth O’Connell said she and her colleagues have taken to referring to the event by a different name.

“We like to call it a ‘low-resource setting,’ ” O’Connell said. “It can be anywhere. It just depends on the situation.”

In this situation, students were told they needed to set up a refugee camp, but not much else. In an effort to make the simulation as realistic as possible, Stoots said he offered participants almost no instruction on how to proceed.

“I told them, ‘you need to create a refugee camp for 50 people, and you’re going to find the resources you have here’ ... and I stopped talking,” Stoots said. “They were waiting for the instructions, but that was it.”

While instructions were limited, Stoots did provide students with a tent full of supplies. He did not assign them to anyone in particular, though, nor did he tell them how they should be used.

“We’re basing it on ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” Stoots said, adding he told students to “get what you can use and go. Then they would have to put it in play.”

Before those tools were selected, however, the students conducted what Stoots referred to as a “brainstorming session” to determine which of them would handle which tasks, like digging sanitation ditches or setting up and working the field hospital. That type of independent action, Stoots said, was what he and other faculty members wanted them to experience.

“The real learning is the strategic planning, the teamwork, how to prioritize (and) how to think on your feet,” Stoots said. “Those are all things researchers and employers are telling us they want to hire. They want people with training, with skill sets, but they have to have good planning skills and great teamwork.

“That’s what we’re really shooting for out here.”

In addition to the training, skill sets, planning and teamwork, however, Stoots said students also needed to prepare for unexpected events. As the event continued throughout the day, “refugees” — who were portrayed by students and other parties — arrived at the camp, each with their own set of problems. Some characters had malaria, some had dysentery, and some were children whose parents had gone missing.

During the event, Stoots made note of a refugee — played by 12-year-old Sayona Turner — in the camp’s field hospital who had more in mind than receiving aid.

“She looks like she’s looking at the patient,” Stoots said. “She’s waiting for them to turn their backs, and she’s going to steal their meds. They mentioned security, but they haven’t done anything about it yet.”

Sayona dropped her jacket to draw the students’ eyes away from the medication, but her efforts were thwarted when one student saw through her ruse. After she was caught, Sayona gave the medication back, then left the area to wait on her next task, which was going to be pretending to be a lost child.

“Throughout the day, as they prepare the camp, there are different situations that are occurring,” Stoots said. “We had an entrapment under a tree where they had to extricate a young lady. We had one of our refugees come in early and deliver a child.”

In addition to medical and criminal activity, Stoots also included a social confrontation on his list of surprise encounters.

“We had a couple of gentlemen posing as elders from another neighborhood nearby,” Stoots said. “They came in and said, ‘We don’t want your refugee camp here.’ They had to deal with that, and the political and cultural sensitivity in that.”

Despite the various surprises he arranged for them, Stoots said he expected his students were capable of handling them.

Even if they weren’t capable, however, the surprise situations may have still proven useful. According to Sharp — who worked in an actual refugee camp in Roatán, Honduras — even if students didn’t correctly address a problem, the experience of failure can still be educational.

“You don’t learn until you fail in a lot of situations in real life,” Sharp said. “Out here, we do want to fail, because we learn how to pick up from that failure and make it right.”

O’Connell — who has also worked abroad, though not in a refugee-camp setting — added that providing students with a forum to practice what they learned in classes can help solidify what they learned.

“Getting a real-world experience always reinforces what you learned in the classroom,” she said.

What may prove to be the most important lesson, however, is the collaborative effort between students. For Wilsie Bishop, vice president for the health affairs department and chief operating officer for ETSU, the event’s focus on teamwork and team-building will help carry the students forward into their professional careers.

“We know that when they graduate and have to go out in the real world, they’re going to have to work in teams,” Bishop said. “They’re going to face crises that are unexpected. They’re going to have to determine who has what role and how you work together.

“It’s really important to us to have this opportunity.”

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