Last summer, four University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students worked with Dr. Dawn Ford and the Hamilton County Health Department on a tabletop exercise, a tactic used by emergency response agencies to prepare for emergencies. They came up with ways to respond in the event of extreme heat.
In one of their newsletters this fall, the National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO) discussed Ford, adjunct professor in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science, and her students’ work in Hamilton and Shelby counties. Realizing how much of an impact their work was making, UTC Master of Public Health student Abbie Woodson was humbled by the recognition.
“It feels like my work means something,” Woodson said. “I felt fulfilled with this project and getting to know that I was a part of something that can have a lasting impact on people who are a part of our community and people who don’t have a voice to advocate for themselves. It’s a privilege.”
While Woodson was unable to take part in the actual tabletop exercise, she played a significant role in the preparation.
“I wrote modules; I wrote the backgrounds on climate change science,” Woodson said. “I worked with the rest of the team to kind of come up with what our scenarios were going to be like.”
The project team split into groups to handle scenarios of extreme heat in Hamilton County and Memphis’ Shelby County. Each group considered concerns that were specific to the county they were focusing on and incorporated their research and plans into a PowerPoint presentation in the tabletop exercise.
“Extreme heat we would classify as anything in the 90s for a long period of time and really high heat index,” Woodson explained. “We looked at last year specifically, and we had 10 days of high-90s in a row that would be classified as extreme heat.
“So we basically used that as a framework and then took us through a process of opening cooling centers, and what it would look like if we had an energy outage; what it would look like on hospitals, things of that nature.”
While Woodson spent her summer working on the action plan, she enjoyed brainstorming the best ways for people to respond in emergency situations. She said she was excited to get a taste of what she hoped her job after graduate school might entail.
“This was part of my curriculum, but…we get to do things that are actually happening in real time,” she said.
As a result of the tabletop exercise, several organizations incorporated what was learned into better preparation for extreme heat in the future, providing hope of greater ease for high-risk individuals.
“If we were to experience an extreme heat emergency, most likely the people who are most vulnerable in our areas are going to be affected the most,” Woodson said. “People who are living in poverty, people who deal with chronic illnesses, people of color. We see much higher impacts to these people.”
Woodson participated in the tabletop exercise preparations alongside her classmates and Ford, whose experience working in emergency response preparedness, led them to the opportunity.
Ford is the epidemiology department manager for the Hamilton County Health Department. She takes her skills into the classroom and shares those experiences and expertise with her students.
“I was actively engaged in educating people across the state about climate change and advocating for policies to advocate for health in the climate change discussion,” Ford said. “A lot of times when people talk about climate change, it’s about the environmental impacts, which are severe and are very concerning, but it’s also going to impact human health.”
Bringing the lesson from the classroom to the community, students worked firsthand with government officials and professionals in public health to discuss ways to help those in need.
“It’s something that they did outside of the class requirement,” Ford said. “They were able to work with people outside UTC on a project that may change.”
Ford and her students’ work included participating in changes to Chattanooga’s Climate Action Plan, where one UTC graduate student, Allie Beukema, presented an idea to the City Council.
“There was a lot of opposition to the Climate Action Plan in general,” Ford said. “They came out in force and they spoke up and, you know, that’s what I talked to the students about this semester: It’s important to know the other side of the story.”
Ford helps her students understand each person’s perspective when decisions concerning public health are being made. By allowing the community to act as the classroom, students can put the lessons into perspective, a skill that has proven especially useful for Beukema.
“It not only builds confidence in students, but it also allows them to see real-world applications of the things they’re studying in the classroom. It allows them to network and meet people they might be working with after graduation,” Beukema said. “It just opens up a lot of doors and a lot of opportunities and a lot of learning experiences that are beyond the textbook.”
When learning from Ford, Beukema addressed ways to combat climate change with Chattanooga city officials, ideas which later were added to the city’s Climate Action Plan.
“When I started that project, I didn’t expect I would be getting up in front of the City Council,” Beukema said. “Then the actual plans were implemented in the Climate Action Plan.”
Beukema didn’t set out to work in environmental health, but after everything she learned and experienced inside and outside her work with Ford and the city, she found her passion.
“Climate change is going to be something that is constantly affecting us all and our health and our food systems,” Beukema said. “So I will probably find myself doing a lot of policy work, working with stakeholders to make systemic changes in local and state and maybe even federal policies to support especially vulnerable communities.”
Thanks to the success of the work, Ford, who now serves as president of the Tennessee Public Health Association, said the association has been awarded an additional grant of $25,000 from NACCHO.
“We will be developing extreme heat plans and education materials for the elderly and those with disabilities,” Ford said. “I’ll be hiring students to do this work during the spring semester.”