Professor receives funding to study disaster response

The types of disasters that could hit a community are ever changing, and in recent years examples of those disasters have ranged from hurricanes and tornadoes, to domestic terrorism and disease outbreaks.

Thanks to a $577,474 grant from the National Science Foundation, a Goizueta Business School professor is conducting research to understand how communities plan for, and respond to, emergency events.

Michael Prietula, a Professor of Information Systems and Operations Management at Goizueta, is working in collaboration with Emory’s Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, two professors from the University of Notre Dame and the Miami-Dade Office of Emergency Management.

Emergency Operation Centers are locations, when activated, that house an incident command structure of decision makers who have primary responsibility for public safety under the guidelines of the FEMA’s National Incident Management System. Prietula said the goal for the two-year project is to craft a “virtual operations center” modeling tool to investigate how large numbers of public and private agencies exchange information and make decisions during an emergency event.

By learning from Miami-Dade, Prietula said the project would build an open source simulation framework so others can test their own structures and train their own members.

“The organization we are studying has learned how to learn over time because it has dealt with these recurring, complex events that are never exactly the same, but have a lot of similarities,” Prietula said of Miami-Dade, which is known worldwide for its competency during emergency events. “The Miami-Dade organization exhibits a refined form of what one might call ‘organizational metacognition’ that allows them to manage what they have learned and make adjustments accordingly.

“They know what they know, and they know what they do not know. That distinction is critical for monitoring their performance and engaging different organizational response processes when necessary. Essentially, it all comes down to managing information and its flow, both inside and outside of the organization.”

[pullquote]Essentially, it all comes down to managing information and its flow, both inside and outside of the organization. – Prof. Michael Prietula[/pullquote]

Examples of highly-publicized events that required a coordinated response from government and the public safety community are the Ebola cases that hit the Dallas area this fall, the ice and snowstorms that fell on the Atlanta area in early 2014 and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

“Such events require many diverse organizations to effectively communicate and coordinate because lives can be lost and communities can be decimated if poor decisions are made or if reasonable decisions are not coordinated,” Prietula said. “The engagement of emergency response doesn’t have to be initiated by a massive event, such as a hurricane or an ice storm. As we have seen, bombs as small as a pressure cooker can incur significant public and business disruption (and cost) as demonstrated in Boston, and a single Ebola case resulted in the Dallas County Emergency Operations Center to activate.

The Miami-Dade EOC is also tightly integrated with businesses in their response and recovery activities, with special attention to business continuity efforts.

“When a community is faced with a crisis, so will the businesses in that community,” Prietula said. “So how can we translate what we find here so others can benefit from it? You’re seeing a strong footprint of key businesses in the EOC. It is not only the resources they can bring to a recovery effort. It’s their managers, employees, and their customers being affected, so it benefits everyone to build a resilient community.”

The coordination task can be enormous, involving not only city, county, state, and even federal agencies, but a wide variety of public and private institutions, such as schools, clinics, hospitals, volunteer and faith-based organizations and local and regional businesses.

Furthermore, few of these institutions typically interact at all, much less to levels required in this pressurized incident command structure.

“Organizations will eventually face a crisis, so the question is how they deal that crisis, whether a smaller organization or larger,” Prietula said. “How can we translate what we find here so others can benefit from it?”

With prior grants from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and other Federal agencies with Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, Prietula’s research with Dr. Gregory Berns (Psychology) links individual and organizational decision making, and how that is supported with information technology.

Possessing a doctorate in Information Systems, and a Master’s degree in Public Health, Prietula has a variety of interests related to the topic of health care, emergency preparedness, and business. “Emory University and Goizueta are excellent places to conduct this type of research. They encourage the necessary interdisciplinary efforts that bring together the correct mix of experts to address the core issues of problems.”

About Professor Prietula

Michael Prietula

Michael J. Prietula (PhD, MPH) is Professor in the Goizueta Business School, a senior faculty member in Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, and is visiting Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and his research focuses on agent-based models of individuals, groups and institutions; the neuroscience of beliefs and choice; the use of information technology in public health interventions; and, building computational models of narrative interaction. Dr. Prietula teaches courses in decision making, social simulation, and the business/social/health impacts of political violence and terrorism.  Formerly, he has been a faculty member at Dartmouth College, Carnegie Mellon University and the Johns Hopkins University.  Dr. Prietula is also a Research Scholar at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a leading interdisciplinary research center that develops pioneering technologies aimed at leveraging and extending human capabilities.

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