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Disaster Center 2.0: Preparing the Nation Today - for Tomorrow

A blurred photo of people sitting at round tables, there is a TV on in the background but the image is blurred. The NCDMPH logo is overlaid on the photo.
 By Laura Bailey

Every Monday at nine a.m., the staff at the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health (NCDMPH) gathers in the conference room for a team meeting with the center director. They come mostly on time, with notebooks and pens in hand, sometimes cups of coffee, but that’s not all.

Everyone knows to bring something to the table, an offering of sorts, to lay on the metaphorical altar. In this case, the altar is an oblong conference table inside a windowless room just big enough for the growing staff of 13 members. One by one, starting with the director, they share their top three accomplishments for the week prior and goals for the next. If anyone has any misgivings about the new practice, it doesn’t show. Week after week, the list of accomplishments continues to expand making it the perfect analogy for a growing NCDMPH of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU).

Three people, two male, one female, stand in a large room. One man speaks while the others listen. There is a blurred research poster in the background.
Dr. Kirsch (right) and two attendees at a 2016 symposium (Image credit: HJF)

Like a lion waking up from a deep slumber, NCDMPH is re-emerging thanks to the new center director, Thomas Kirsch, MD, MPH. Not being one for flair or drama, he prefers to avoid the fanfare and skip right to the task at hand. Still, there’s no denying that he’s brought with him a distinct vision for NCDMPH.  Kirsch calls it Center 2.0, an amalgamation of science, research, education, and collaboration in action.

Center 2.0 now boasts more than 30 projects since Kirsch arrived less than a year ago.
“First, we need to understand the current landscape of disaster science and education to better direct national efforts,” said Kirsch. “NCDMPH is undertaking two large projects to study and describe the current scope of disaster science and educational efforts in the U.S.”

The “Crisis Leadership in Disasters” symposium at USU Sept. 6, will explore crisis leadership training needs in the health professions, particularly health emergency and disaster response. The following day, the “Disaster Health Education Symposium: Advancing the State of the Art,” will provide a forum with a particular focus on education and training methods in disaster medicine and public health. Both symposia, sponsored by NCDMPH, offer continuing medical and nursing education credits.

Other Center 2.0 initiatives include rebranding in alignment with USU, which means a new logo and website, and building collaborative partnerships and relationships in the disaster community. One thing is entirely clear:  a building momentum, evident in the center’s increasing activities, signals the re-establishment of NCDMPH as the nation’s trusted steward of disaster science and education.

Why now? Readiness is more important than ever, said Kirsch. One reason is that the increasing threat of man-made disasters, such as the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, and the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, persists. The other reason is that urbanization of coastal regions means more Americans are becoming vulnerable to severe weather events such as hurricanes and floods.

Block quote: "the nation's trusted steward of disaster science & disaster education"“It’s not necessarily because extreme weather events are increasing but, rather, the populations are growing where these events are most likely to occur,” said Kirsch. “The population growth of an affected area directly effects the number of mass casualties in the U.S., whether by man-made or natural disaster.”

“Most extreme weather events, excluding hurricanes, are expected to increase in both frequency and severity,” said Mark Keim, MD, MBA, senior science advisor at NCDMPH. “Hurricanes are expected to increase in severity, but not necessarily in frequency. However, this remains particularly concerning since disaster-related mortality is more closely aligned with storm severity than frequency.”

So, what’s the bottom line?

Kirsch’s stern face, behind circular lenses in tortoise shell frames, looks more serious than an F5 tornado when discussing the subject.

“Disasters and mass casualty events continue to threaten our nation,” he said. “NCDMPH has a critical mission to use science and education to better prepare us, and we need to meet that mission. In the new strategic plan, NCDMPH’s mission states, “We are the nation’s academic center of excellence leading domestic and international disaster health education and research efforts. In collaboration with partners, we create and translate science and education to improve readiness.”

There it is. He said it. Readiness. Center 2.0 is preparing the nation today - for tomorrow.