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KNOXVILLE — Nursing students traveled to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., earlier this month to participate in a two-day mass-casualty simulation.

The scenario involved a hurricane threat to the greater Huntsville, Ala., area. Tornados spawned from the hurricane caused widespread destruction to the city and downed a helicopter carrying Russian nationals.

It was all part of the final project in the Homeland Security Nursing program at the University of Tennessee.

Students put their skills to the test as they managed the scene of the crash, large-scale evacuations and a nuclear power plant leak. They even responded to a smallpox outbreak.

“I’m just waiting for the locusts and flies,” commented student Steven Busby, adding that the exercise was a challenging and unique combination of disasters.

As part of the simulation, students also participated in several mock press conferences.

“In addition to acting quickly on the scene of a mass-casualty, these students had to be able to translate what was going on to the public,” said Susan Speraw, director of UT’s Homeland Security Nursing program.

Four public relations students and one public relations assistant professor from UT role-played as reporters while several nursing faculty acted as public officials. A member of UT’s Center for Industrial Services also participated.

Though most of the simulation took place Saturday morning, Speraw explained that the full hurricane exercise was “on” from Friday afternoon until the group’s departure Sunday morning, with the exception of meal breaks.

To strengthen their resilience under pressure, students knew few details of the disaster simulation beforehand and were awoken before dawn with news of the disaster.

“Catastrophe can strike at any second,” said Speraw. “These students should be able to react without having all the information, no matter if it’s day or night.”

Speraw described the weekend as a large success and thanked Chris Johnson, vice president for geospatial technologies at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and Norven Goddard, assistant director for science and technology for the state of Alabama Homeland Security, for their hospitality.

The Homeland Security Nursing program at UT was the first graduate degree-granting program of its kind in the nation. Though similar programs now exist, UT is still the only institution to offer a doctorate focusing on homeland security nursing.

Students who participated in the simulation are members of the second class to graduate and will complete their core coursework this month. All are working toward the completion of the doctoral degree specializing in homeland security nursing.

The program, created with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in August 2005, focuses on training nurses to be leaders and managers in mass-casualty disasters and public health emergencies.

Susan Speraw, (865) 974-7586,
Kristi Hintz, (865) 974-3993,