“People often don’t know that emergency management exists,” says Treemonisha Smith, Mount Saint Mary’s first director of emergency management and environmental health and safety. “I always say, ‘You don’t know you need us until you need us.’” Part of the impetus for creating this position was the Los Angeles County public health requirement that required that an individual be designated as COVID-19 compliance officer; the other was to have this person coordinate all existing and new emergency protocols on both campuses. Smith held similar roles with LMU, UCLA School of Medicine, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Homeland Security advisory council, a nonprofit here in Los Angeles that helped facilitate private and public partnerships with the government around emergency management and homeland security.
Smith got her start in emergency management quite by accident. In 2008, she was working as the interim secretary for the chief nurse at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Houston, her hometown. She had worked in various capacities at the hospital while working her way through college with a major in community health science. Hurricane Ike was approaching, and she was asked if she wanted to work onsite for the duration of the lockdown.
“I saw people walking around in different colored vests,” she says. “There’s an incident commander, and people explained how emergency management works from the hospital command system, and I thought that it sounded really interesting.” Smith saw that the coordination established by the incident commander enabled the charge nurses to continue to focus on patient care rather than get bogged down by safety meetings. That happenstance incident led her to obtain her master’s in disaster preparedness and biosecurity, and she started her career in Los Angeles as an intern with the city’s emergency management department.
One of Smith’s disaster plans for Georgia Tech came into play during a summer water main break that affected most of the city. “Like Los Angeles, Atlanta has a very old infrastructure,” she says, “and water shutoffs at Georgia Tech are a huge deal because they’re a big research institution and not having water really compromises their research.” Smith had developed plans for each building to ensure the preservation of research that were broken down into contingency plans for if they were without water for a day, two days, three days and beyond, including bringing in water trucks from a different county in the event of a city-wide water issue. “Coca-Cola is huge and they’re one of our vendors,” she says, “but at that point everybody was calling them for water so we had to come up with what else we could do.”
As for the Mount, Smith is assessing needs and building upon the plans that are already in place. “I’m looking for opportunities to do more exercises and drills and make sure not just that our students are ready but that the cabinet has done their tabletop exercises and every department knows their role no matter what the incident or the emergency is. That’s the ultimate goal; it definitely takes time to get everyone on the same page, but that’s ultimately what I’m working toward.
“I really believe that when disaster or emergency strikes that the way we respond, the way we act, is based on how much practice we’ve done or what we’ve practiced. Practice will enable students to feel more empowered and confident in what they can do and also that the University is doing something.”
Smith plans to create an emergency management website that can provide details of actual plans and where people can get information about any available training. The external site will be the resource for anyone – the community, the parents, our campus neighbors. She plans to disseminate information about what students can do at home as well. Other tactics that worked well on other campuses include a monthly awareness campaign on different preparedness topics.
Smith says that MSMU’s unstoppable campaign completely grabbed her attention when she was researching the school. “I feel like emergency management and environmental health and safety plays into that, too,” she says. “One phrase that you’ll see a lot in emergency management is in omnia paratus, which is Latin for ‘In All Things Prepared,’ which you can think of as ‘ready for anything.’ I would say being unstoppable means being fearless, but it also means being ready for anything. And being ready for anything means having a role in your emergency preparedness and knowing that it takes the full community to really be prepared and to be resilient.”