Alumna Helps Residents Prepare for Disasters

Alumna Stevee Franks in the Harris County Emergency Operations Center.
Alumna Stevee Franks is a CERT coordinator for Harris County.

As a CERT coordinator, Stevee Franks helps ordinary people prepare for disasters in the third largest county in the country – whether it is a hurricane, a fire, a terrorist attack or other major emergencies in their neighborhoods.

Franks, who graduated from the Master of Science Program in Security Studies in May, is one of four coordinators in the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) program, which helps residents of Harris County prepare for a disaster. She links community members with basic training in fire, first aid, emergency management, search and rescue, and psychology, to name a few, so they can help themselves, their families and their neighbors before emergency responders arrive.

CERT volunteers learn how to put out small fires.
CERT volunteers learn how to put out small fires.
“Harris County is such a large area and, due to its location, it is susceptible to so many natural hazards, flooding, fire, hurricanes, etc.” said Franks. “Also, there is a plethora of critical infrastructure such as the port authority and industrial plants. Because of this, it is not only susceptible to manmade hazards like a chemical leak, but it could also be a target for terrorism. We want to teach people to take care of themselves in a disaster. They can assist by taking care of themselves, their families and communities until first responders can get there. It helps relief some of the stress on first responders and makes CERT members aware of their actions and limitations so they do not become another victim.”

The eight-week, 24-hour CERT program provides training to community groups on the basic necessities of preparing for any type of emergency. Franks helps to identify community groups and links them with professionals in their area, like fire departments, to provide necessary training. Following these sessions, residents participate in mock drills to test their new-found skill.

Since joining the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in May, Franks added 35 new citizen volunteers through the program, and she recently started three more groups in CERT training. Because of the diversity of Harris County, the CERT program is offered in several languages and to many unique groups, such as elderly residents, representatives from the Transportation Service Administration, and the deaf community, to name a few. The program can be tailored to each audience.

The Harris County Emergency Operation Center in action.
The Harris County Emergency Operation Center in action.
Franks began her career in Harris County following an internship with the agency, where she served in the planning section. That section is charged with creating plans for all types of disasters focusing on how to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from each situation.

“An internship is a great way to see how much potential a student or recent graduate has in the field,” said Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Sloan. “Stevee worked hard and developed a good work ethic while she was here, so we decided to bring her on as a paid employee.”

During her internship, Franks participated in three activations of the Emergency Operation Center in response to ice storms in the area. She was able to observe and participate in the coordinated efforts to deal with emergencies, which include various public and private partners from throughout the county.

“You have to make yourself available,” said Franks. “You have to be there to do something that needs to be done.”

Franks stepped in to help during last winter's ice storms.
Franks stepped in to help during last winter's ice storms.
The Emergency Operations Center is located in Houston TranStar, which manages transportation corridors in the region. It is a partnership that allows the EOC to closely monitor the impact of emergencies on traffic throughout the area.

By volunteering during emergencies – and getting hands-on experience in her graduate program – Franks landed a job in the office following her graduation. She said the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management offers many opportunities in the security studies field, including training/exercises, planning/logistics and administration/finance. The office coordinates with partners in order to aid in the response to a wide variety of emergencies, including fires, hazmat situations, special events, health epidemics, transportation issues and bad weather.

“Harris County, which includes major cities like Houston, Pasadena, Deer Park, Humble, LaPorte, and parts of Katy, encompasses 1,777 square miles, 4.2 million people and 34 cities,” said Franks. “It includes 54 fire departments, 125 law enforcement agencies and the largest export port in the U.S. It is also a major hub for the energy and medical communities.”

Franks recently share her experience with new security studies students.
Franks recently shared her experience with new security studies students.
Franks said Sam Houston State University prepared her well for her career, including professors who cared about her future, networking opportunities that linked her with professionals in the field, and hands-on experience in fields like emergency management by utilizing resources such as the Incident Command Simulation Training Suite at LEMIT. The program provides mock disaster drills, allowing students to understand the terminology and activities involved in a real life emergency.

Franks said she also took a risk assessment class, which she turned into a part time job working for the Center for Safe and Secure Schools conducting safety and security assessments in Harris County schools.

“It helped me with networking, and the professors let you know they cared about your future,” Franks said. “They taught us what we really needed to know through applied programs with hands-on experiences.”

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