Faculty-student team examines responsiveness of first responders in catastrophes

Dr. Terri Adams-Fuller, Nicole Branch, & Leigh Anderson

In deadly disasters like Category Five hurricanes or terrorist attacks, why do some police officers on the front line fail to report to duty? Why do other officers always show up?

These are the questions that Dr. Terri Adams-Fuller and her team are trying to answer in their research this summer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response (PACER) at Johns Hopkins University.

The research team is part of the DHS Summer Research Team Program for Minority-Serving Institutions. Adams-Fuller and her team of students, graduate student Nicole Branch and undergraduate Leigh Anderson, applied for the nationally competitive program by submitting a research proposal to study issues related to the role of public safety officers during crisis events. Specifically, they are examining the degradation of the New Orleans Police Department’s duty and command structure during Hurricane Katrina.

“Most of us are aware that there were a number of police officers that did not show up for duty during the Hurricane Katrina crisis and that some actually quit during the crisis, but what we need to have a better understanding of is why some officers responded to the call of duty and why others did not respond,” said Adams-Fuller, a professor at Howard University.

What’s unusual about Adams-Fuller’s team is that it is the only team participating in the summer program that includes both an undergraduate and graduate student, rather than students of only one academic level. “This makes the integration of both students on the research team a challenge,” explained Leigh Ann Pennington, program manager at Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which administers the program for DHS. “But no doubt this team has a strong leader to meet the challenge,” she added.

PACER’s mission is to investigate issues relevant to the theory and practice of emergency preparedness and response and determine how to improve responsiveness and effectiveness. The research goals of Adams-Fuller and her team fit well with the mission.

“While we have been preparing as a nation for catastrophic events, most of the simulation models presuppose that first responders will respond. However, first responders are sometimes personally impacted by such events and do not respond as expected,” Adams-Fuller explained.

“We need to better understand what we can expect when those we rely upon in the midst of a disaster are torn between preservation of self and family and professional responsibility.”