One year ago, Meredith Nichols was in the classroom planning for hypothetical disasters. Today, she works for Custer County in Colorado planning for real ones.
The 23-year-old Deputy Emergency Manager never expected to attain such a high position right out of college, but she has embraced the responsibility. Thanks to the comprehensive international rescue and relief program at Union College, Nichols has been training to be an emergency management professional since day one of her freshman year.
Diving into the field
The first IRR class a freshman at Union College takes is Principles of Emergency Management. More than just a semester of dry theory, the course teaches students the foundation of emergency response and provides them with FEMA-certified credentials.
“We run incident after incident,” said Rick Young, program director for IRR. “We believe If you don’t practice it, you won’t maintain it. We embed muscle memory in the students so they can use these skills in the professional world.”
The program also includes disaster management coursework, plus five weeks of field training in Colorado and three months in Nicaragua focused on global health.
Nichols has proven the value of that educational philosophy. Between the months of May and September 2017, the recent graduate was responsible for updating the Emergency Operations Plan for Custer County, a herculean task by any standard. The fact that the existing plan was 14 years out of date made the responsibility even more daunting.
Thanks to the muscle memory built during Principles of Emergency Management, however, Nichols approached the task exactly as she had learned to do.
“In class we ran a lot of exercises and eventually helped rewrite the Emergency Operations Plan for Union College,” Nichols said. “Writing the plan [for Custer County], I could think back and see what we had done in class and apply that to my work.”
After four months and four drafts, Nichols sent the updated plan to the county commissioners. They approved it without a word of criticism.
The success of that plan was the catalyst that propelled Nichols—then only a paid intern—into her current position as Deputy Emergency Manager for Custer County.
“Meredith has a valuable skill set,” said Cindy Howard, Emergency Manager for Custer County. “From writing and editing plans, sharing documents and inviting collaboration among stakeholders, her education and her experience in training and exercise are bringing essential skills to the program.”
Moving up in her career
Following the success of the updated Custer County Emergency Operations Plan, Nichols has moved on to her next project: to develop a working hazmat plan for the county. As a member of the hazmat committee, Nichols will help create a tabletop exercise based on the most current response protocols, followed by a full-scale, county-wide simulation.
“The hope is to get as many people involved as possible,” she said. “We want to make sure we have the right resources to manage a hazmat disaster.”
To accomplish this goal, Nichols has begun to develop relationships with key players in the county. The recent graduate now interacts with fire chiefs, sheriffs, county commissioners and behavioral health specialists.
“It’s kind of insane because I’m only 23 and newly graduated,” Nichols said. “But Union helped me to feel prepared. My communication skills really developed at Union. Rick Young made a point of how to communicate in front of people and how to get your point across.”
If Nichols has gotten one point across, it is that she is an invaluable member of the emergency management team in Custer County. She is so well-regarded, in fact, that the county offered her an all-expense-paid enrollment in the Emergency Management Academy in Denver this April. The six-month program is a crash course on how to function as an emergency manager. By the end, Nichols will be qualified to lead emergency preparedness at the county level.
“You learn a lot information about emergency management,” Nichols said. “They teach all the fundamentals for ways to do the job well. I definitely feel honored that the county wants to send me.”
A future in emergency management
For someone who initially never wanted to go into emergency management, Nichols has taken to her surprising new career with passion.
“I just stumbled into it,” she recalled. “I wanted to go into public health, but somehow I shifted into this career.”
Such career adaptability is as much testament to the IRR program as it is to Nichols’ own identity – the range of opportunities for the dedicated IRR student is as wide as the imagination.
“IRR is so versatile,” said Nichols, who graduated with a personalized IRR degree in International Community Development. “You can go so many directions. I know it can be intimidating if you don’t have a plan by senior year, but the type of person who makes it through IRR is a great candidate for almost any job.”
Rick Young agrees. Rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all curriculum, the program director encourages IRR students to think big.
“If we can mold a program to your specific career and academic goals rather than the usual academics that college throws at you, I’m all for it,” he said. “Some students don’t like the medical aspect of IRR, and that’s fine. We will build a program around the direction you want to go.”
Nichols is thankful to have graduated with exactly what she needed to succeed.
“Being able to transform my degree into what I wanted was super helpful,” she said. “I saw each class as an opportunity to grow. Union really did help me.”
By Michael Rohm ’14