North Dakota Student Will Take FEMA Classroom Collaboration Experience to the Workforce

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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-related problems identified by FEMA staff. Below, North Dakota State University student Kayla Niedzielski shares more about her experience participating in FEMA’s Innovative Problem-Solving course. 

Having the opportunity to be a part of the Region 8-sponsored FEMA Innovative Problem-Solving course was an incredibly eye-opening and insightful experience. Our course instructors, Dr. Carol Cwiak and Dr. Caroline Hackerott presented the class with seven different complex problems identified by FEMA Region 8 staff, with one assigned to each team. To assist with the task, a group of FEMA Problem Sponsors, who developed the problem statements, helped us understand and conceptualize the problems. 

The challenges encompassed a spectrum of concerns that needed to be addressed, including effectively communicating messages in rural areas ensuring thorough after-action reporting and enhancing the capabilities and capacities of rural Emergency Management systems at the local level. The problems were broad and far-reaching, forcing the teams to think outside the box. 

My team’s challenge involved using publicly available datasets to assist FEMA in distributing aid more equitably to underserved populations in Region 8.  Our process started with several subject matter expert interviews with various stakeholders, including members of local, state, and federal government, Tribal Nations and different members of the emergency management private sector. Through these interviews it became clear that our initial scope was not going to meet FEMA’s root challenge. This moved the project toward a conceptual framework based on the emergency management literature surrounding vulnerability, equity and intersectionality. These concepts were fundamental when discussing FEMA’s ability to begin addressing the problem of equitable aid distribution, as datasets are not comprehensive enough and do not reflect the complexity of Region 8’s underserved populations. 

Through the interview and research process, a major theme emerged: Emergency management is most effective at the local level and requires consistent and strong community-level engagement. The FEMA staff emphasized the importance of using creative, innovative and complex problem-solving strategies while tackling this gap in FEMA. 

With help and support from the FEMA staff, collaboration with stakeholders opened our minds to creating a new diagram to illustrate the complexity of an individual's layered and multi-dimensional path to equity in a disaster. Applying this model provides an opening for difficult conversations within the federal government regarding how equity is managed through multiple programs, especially in the recovery phase. 

Our team created a new model of possible equity challenges during a disaster that reflect both the context gathered from subject matter expert interviews and the theoretical literature within Emergency Management.  While these findings and models provided only a starting point in addressing the problems of inequity in rural areas within Region 8, I am thankful to be a part of the new wave of emergency management professionals committed to confronting and addressing rural vulnerability, inequities, and helping to build widespread resilience. 

The experience of this course provided a chance to navigate and explore solutions to our government's strongest challenges. It has given me new perspectives on the true complexity of the federal government’s different programs as well as the barriers that exist in allowing emergency managers to accomplish the mission of protecting lives, livelihoods and quality of life. Not only that, but through the discussions and research, I feel more prepared to fulfill the expectations and quality of work expected, not only at a federal level, but to the entire region to build resilience and help communities better respond to disasters. Having the opportunity to contribute to the literature of emergency management has been a wonderful experience and will continue to motivate me while transitioning to an emergency management career. 

You can also read about the experiences of one of FEMA staff that mentored the students this semester:  Helping the Emergency Managers of Tomorrow Address the Challenges of Today | All of the student reports are available at Innovative Problem Solving for FEMA | Emergency Management and Disaster Science | NDSU.

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