Forecasters watched closely as Hurricane Leo approached New York City. The Category 1 storm had all the makings of blowing up to a Category 2 by the time it hit the largest city in the U.S. The New York City Office of Emergency Management and other agencies had set up facilities, stocked emergency food and supplies, and issued hurricane warnings. Thousands of storm staffers were gearing up.
Fortunately, Hurricane Leo is a fictional crisis. It is a simulation exercise, part of a Coastal Storm Plan developed by the City University of New York (CUNY) to respond in the event of a major coastal storm that would require massive evacuation away from flood zones.
The City of New York has been identified, along with New Orleans and Miami, as one of the nation’s cities most vulnerable to hurricanes, partly because of its low-lying infrastructure, narrow river channels, and large population. Key to CUNY’s Coastal Storm Plan is an emergency sheltering system that would house people who lack access to housing outside the city, which could run as high as 600,000 during a Category 3 or higher storm.
Assigned to storm staff are thousands of city workers from 19 agencies, whose day jobs range from patrolling parks and managing human resources, to providing environmental protection, teaching students, and running the housing authority. To train these workers, CUNY developed an educational program that involves both classroom and online training.
Helius, a Hughes company, delivers the online component through the Helius Learning Management Portal, a state-of-the-art online training system. The Helius system is a turnkey, secure, Web-based solution that enables CUNY to store and distribute its training content, track results, and measure usage—all from any location with an Internet connection.
The cutting-edge training delivered over the Helius Portal simulates a hurricane event from four days before expected landfall until the day after the storm when recovery begins. The course covers the overall structure of the emergency system and basic functions to provide safe, clean shelter. It also addresses specific roles such as mental health workers, medical practitioners, and supervisors in charge of dormitories or animal care.
The online course, which lasts about 90 minutes, takes a storm staffer through different phases of the storm and various detours within an evacuation center where storm victims can be screened for special needs. In an engaging, game-like simulation, the worker is confronted with different scenarios in which individuals are experiencing difficulties within the sheltering system. For example, an elderly person may need assistance, someone on a dialysis machine may require a special medical needs shelter, someone may be seeking a missing family member, or a pet owner may need a cage or leash. The training incorporates videos of CBS broadcasters Dana Tyler and Dave Price who donated their time to lend credibility to the simulation.
In addition to delivering the training, the Helius Portal system enables CUNY to track and report on individual usage, confirm which workers have taken the course, and aggregate training data. The system, which has been operational since May 2007, is also integrated with the university’s internal database to provide single sign-on access to users.
“Besides delivering instant, cutting-edge training, one of the most important benefits of the Helius system is its reporting capability,” said Andrew Boyarsky, project director of CUNY’s Coastal Storm Plan. “We have 19 different agencies with nearly 22,000 workers to manage. The Helius system enables us to put reports at the fingertips of each agency. That makes my job easier.”
The award-winning CUNY program, which represents the largest-scale, inter-agency initiative undertaken in New York City, has trained as many as 11,000 workers in a single year and could eventually expand to cover nearby metropolitan areas.
Today, with its Coastal Storm Plan supported by the Helius Learning Management Portal, the City of New York is providing a model of emergency preparedness to furnish safe shelter so that if Hurricane Leo becomes more than just a simulation, its citizens can ride out the storm until it is safe to go back home.