Emergence Alumna Making a Difference: Finding New Associations to Improve Emergency Management and Crisis Response

In The Innovator’s DNA:  Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, authors Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen contend the first step of disruptive change is finding beneficial and often overlooked associations of disparate elements.  For Center of Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) Emergence 1702 alumna, Outreach Branch Chief Michelle Torres from the State of Alaska, Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, finding a solution to the challenges facing the country’s largest state with respect to crisis response started with her desire to help the disadvantaged youth of Alaska.  Her work with the young adults (16-18 years of age) of the Alaska Military Youth Academy (AMYA) ChalleNGe (National Guard) Program revealed an undervalued resource. With the support and encouragement from the Director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, currently the Regional Administrator for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 10, Mike O’Hare, Torres applied for the Emergence Program and arrived with the goal of connecting missions, people, and capabilities to better serve the people of Alaska.

The AMYA ChalleNGe Program targets at-risk youth, who have left high school without receiving a credential, to foster graduates with the education (high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED)) and life-skills to succeed as adults.  Her idea was simple; develop a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training as part of the AMYA ChalleNGe Program, develop continuing education and service opportunities for these students as they return to their cities, towns, and villages (often deep within the Alaska bush country), and use these students as instructors and mentors in all aspects of emergency response for other youth in those areas.  Thus, by providing increase instruction and effectively training the trainer, Torres fielded capable instructors to some of the most remote areas of the state.  She noted “these students often return to a village where they were born and will probably never leave…they are remote areas, hours from any emergency responders…and they are returning with a sense of purpose and, possibly for the first time, a true sense of pride in what they can do and themselves.”

Torres not only provided the direction for expanded training, but additionally outlined a path for future inclusion of AMYA ChalleNGe cadets into the statewide Small Community Emergency Response Plan (SCERP).  SCERPs provide a community-based approach to emergency management, an absolute necessity in a state as remote and expansive as Alaska.  With Alaska’s susceptibility to devastating natural disasters including earthquakes, tsunamis, and flooding, SCERPS provide community and culturally focused solutions.  Torres noted, “we have such a unique and diverse population in Alaska, assuming one size fits all is naïve…we have to use all available resources, tailored in the most effective manner, to address our emergency response needs.”

The instruction provided during Emergence provided insights and guidance to help formulate and develop the program as envisioned by Torres.  She stated, “the course instruction and readings were extremely helpful…you realize early in the program that there are so many things you don’t know you don’t know…Emergence provides not only tangible tools for implementing organizational change, but a new way of looking at problems to find creative solutions.”  The academic aspects of  Emergence  aligned perfectly with the passion Torres brought to her project as she commented, “I had been dropping ideas for what became my Emergence project in our suggestion box at work for some time…this was something I truly believed could be successful and the academics gave me direction for implementing my plan.”

Although the program is still in its early stages, her efforts are making a difference in the lives of the AMYA ChalleNGe cadets and their communities.  “One of our cadets was the first on the scene to a building fire…she single-handedly got everyone out of the building.  Another, provided the inspiration for grade school students to want to become firefighters and first responders,” Torres commented.  Combined with the invaluable benefit to the self-esteem of the cadets as they return to serve in their communities having graduated with a high school diploma or GED, Torres has provided a framework for changing the lives of all Alaskans for years to come.

As stated by Torres, “when we find these rare opportunities to create a culture of preparedness and resilience while turning around the lives of at-risk young adults, we have to be moved to action.”