Helping the Emergency Managers of Tomorrow Address the Challenges of Today

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FEMA Region 8 recently partnered with North Dakota State University to engage students in the school’s Emergency Management program by tackling a series of disaster response challenges identified by FEMA staff. Region 8 National Preparedness Division Continuous Improvement Coordinator Matt Burns helped facilitate FEMA courses for North Dakota State University. He shares more about his experience and how the students play a role in the future of emergency management. All of the student reports are available at Innovative Problem Solving for FEMA | Emergency Management and Disaster Science | NDSU.

Can rural and isolated communities be better prepared to integrate with state and federal partners during a disaster? For three students at North Dakota State University, this question became their singular focus for one semester. But before we expand on the work of these students let me introduce myself.  

My name is Matt Burns. I work out of Region 8, in the National Preparedness Division’s Continuous Improvement Team. I began working in emergency management in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. I supported the creation of the Oklahoma State University continuity of business plan to bring back more than 22,000 students, 14,000 staff and more than 2,000 faculty to campus. After this project, I stood up a COVID-19 response program while working for the U.S. Army at Sierra Army Depot in Herlong, California. 

Working in emergency management is about being immersed in problems that need solving. This is especially true with the Continuous Improvement program, where our main goal is to identify operational challenges and solutions. That’s why, in December of 2023, when Daniel Green, our Higher Education Project Manager, approached the CIP team about identifying a problem for students to tackle as part of the Lean Innovation class at North Dakota State University, it felt like a perfect fit for my experience and current role in CIP. 

From January to May 2024, seven student teams comprised of North Dakota State University graduate and undergraduate students tackled challenges faced by many rural and isolated communities in Region 8, FEMA personnel from multiple areas of expertise provided guidance to these student groups as they interviewed experts from the state, local and federal levels to identify solutions. These student teams got a major boost from Patti Pudwill, the new FEMA Rural and Small State Advocate, when she joined our efforts!  At the end of the semester, some teams had found full resolution to the challenges presented to them while others created frameworks to start conversations about the challenges FEMA, state and local partners experience.

So, returning to the question I posed for you: Can rural and isolated communities be better prepared to integrate with state and federal partners during a disaster? We decided to call this problem What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Disaster). This kind of approach would likely be challenging, frustrating, and a bit ambiguous as the variables associated with this problem are daunting to even the most seasoned emergency manger. The team developed a unified response framework for federal, state and local partners to use which can be found in their final report. The framework they developed is similar to a coach’s playbook in football, or a very thorough cookbook with all the ingredients listed!

Is there additional work to be done? The research these amazing students accomplished in one semester is merely a starting point. At the end of the day, our mission is to help people before, during and after disasters, and this next generation of leaders just helped us in working toward that goal. Through this North Dakota State University Lean Innovation course and future expansion of the effort to other schools, we can unleash the mind of tomorrow’s leaders on solving emergency management challenges of today.

You can read about the experiences of one of students in another blog post: North Dakota Student Will Take FEMA Classroom Collaboration Experience to the Workforce |

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