April 28, 2023

During times of disaster, whether from severe weather or a global pandemic, each of us can play a part. While not every emergency can be predicted, collaborative public health efforts are critical when responding to the unthinkable.

Through Gillings on the Ground training, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health can equip students with the foundational tools and knowledge to get involved in emergency management.

Hannah Bain Lineberger

Hannah Lineberger

“A lot of people are looking for ways to contribute, but they may not have a background in disaster response,” said Hannah Lineberger, Master of Public Health student in global health and program director for Gillings on the Ground. “Our goal is to help prepare people with the knowledge and skills needed to effectively respond to an emergency as a volunteer or create a plan with friends or family to respond when disasters happen.”

Now in its third year, Gillings on the Ground is a free, two-semester training program open to anyone interested in learning more about disaster preparedness and response. It features a six-week virtual “mini-course” in the fall and an in-person event in the spring that puts students in a hands-on disaster simulation. By partnering with North Carolina organizations – including schools, clinics, health departments and churches – students learn about systems of preparedness from local experts and discover new opportunities for volunteering or collaboration in times of emergency.

“It’s a great way for people to learn more about this part of public health, either for future training or as a career,” Lineberger said.

More than 100 participants from schools and community organizations across the state and beyond completed the Fall 2022 training course and received a certification. The schedule included talks from Gillings faculty, members of the N.C. Institute for Public Health and county partners on the public health facets of disaster response and mitigation, with special focus on the disasters that often happen in our state, like hurricanes, floods or chemical hazards. Community experts from organizations including Albemarle Regional Health Services, Peletah Ministries and county health departments spoke about best practices for crisis communication, trauma-informed care, infant feeding in emergencies and more.

Gillings on the Ground students gather around a hazmat response demonstration.

Gillings on the Ground students gather around a hazmat response demonstration.

A smaller cohort of 24 participants also engaged in hands-on hazardous materials (hazmat) training from the Duke Healthcare Preparedness Coalition in Spring 2023. They completed Incident Command System certifications from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare for the all-day event, where they reviewed hazmat response scenarios to chlorine mustard agents, gas leaks and biological threats. They also learned strategies for mass casualty events, including triaging and bleed training.

Since its inception, Gillings on the Ground has been a student-led program, directed previously by Gillings alumna Arielle Moss, MPH, and Katherine Gora Combs, MPH, along with advisor Elizabeth French, MA, associate dean for strategic initiatives. Lineberger, who is in her first year as director, said that while she was surprised by the range of interest there was in the course, its openness to participation and collaboration from anyone in the community, regardless of prior experience, is truly in the spirit of public health.

“I think people recognize that disasters are becoming an increasing threat, and they want to be proactive in the response,” she said. “There are many public health-related topics you learn through this course – about state emergency plans, about lived experiences with disasters and about how social determinants play a role in making certain communities more vulnerable to disasters.”

Carolina sophomore Riley Harper, who discovered Gillings on the Ground this year through his work with the School’s Nutrition Coalition, saw similar value in the course.

Three Gillings on the Ground participants give a thumbs up in their protective gear.

Three Gillings on the Ground participants give a thumbs up in their protective gear.

“I thought it would be a wonderful way to learn some extremely useful new skills and get to know more about the Gillings School,” Harper said. “During the course, I was blown away at the extent to which natural disasters, such as flooding, can feel truly unstoppable in the moment. I recently had a friend undergo an incident of flooding during a trip funded by her scholarship, and this class helped me to connect more with her story. Moving forward, this class has shown me techniques to be proactive and better prepare for a disaster while still understanding that you truly cannot prepare for everything.”

That invaluable opportunity to learn from the firsthand experiences of community responders is part of what drew Lineberger to lead the program, and it has also opened new avenues to explore in future Gillings on the Ground courses.

“When you’re in college, it can be easy to stay academic focused and not get the experience of practice. So, getting to connect with community partners across the state – I really liked that component of our program,” she said. “I’ve learned that volunteers really have to be prepared for anything, because you don’t know where you’re going to be working or what you’re going to be doing.”

Gillings on the Ground will return for the 2023-24 academic year offering a similar training curriculum. Based on feedback from past participants, the program plans to incorporate an additional section on career opportunities in emergency management and explore additional opportunities for hands-on training.

Interested in disaster response and recovery? Learn more about how you can participate in Gillings on the Ground.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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