by Mark Carter
Posted 6/27/2011 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
Arkansas Tech's emergency management program, which James Lee Witt helped start, was one of the first of its kind in the country and has grown to more than 300 students.
Witt is the former Yell County judge who went on to fame as President Bill Clinton's Cabinet-level FEMA director in the 1990s. Witt went on to fortune as CEO of his own $40 million firm, which works with states and even countries emulating the successful model he built at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Emergency management was an area we needed to professionalize," Witt said.
Witt was happy to help begin that process at Tech, located just across the Arkansas River from Yell County in Russellville. In return, Tech was happy in 2006 to award Witt with an honorary doctoral degree, the first ever awarded by the school and actually his first college degree.
Started in 1997, the EM department at Tech has grown into a nationally recognized program that provides students who intern for local governments and private firms nationwide, including Witt's. Department chief Ed Leachman said Tech interns were distributed to about 20 different firms or agencies each year.
The program is the only one of its kind in the state and according to school officials was the first EM program to receive full accreditation. The program draws students from as far away as China to the Tech campus. In addition, its online EM program attracts students from around the world. More than 40 international students were enrolled in the program last spring.
The state's Department of Emergency Management annually hires Tech interns, usually a couple per year, said director David Maxwell, but as many as 10 for specific events or projects. Currently, 15 of the department's 100 employees are graduates of Tech's EM program. Witt Associates has hired six current or former Tech students for internships or full-time jobs (three for both) since 2008.
"The field is expanding at a high level," said Maxwell, a 1976 Tech grad (and sociology major).
Witt's transformation of FEMA in the 1990s into an efficient model of disaster planning and response helped generate interest in professionalizing the EM discipline, and of course, the events of Sept, 11, 2001, helped make it a priority. Tech was one of just a few schools offering an EM curriculum in 1997. According to FEMA, the number of U.S. schools currently offering higher education degrees in emergency management or homeland security stands at 227.
About a third of the Tech program's 300 or so students are seeking a master's of science in emergency management and homeland security. The rest are on track to receive a bachelor's degree in emergency administration and management.
The rise of Tech's program has been a catalyst in the school's growth, said ATU President Robert Brown. Tech can now boast about 10,000 students and has seen 12 straight fall semesters of record enrollment, accounting for growth of about 130 percent since 1997, the year EM was introduced at Tech.
"This is a distinguished program, both in the state and nationally," Brown said. "There's no question about it. It's one of our areas of excellence."
Leachman said what really distinguishes the Tech program is its disaster simulation.
"None of the other [EM] programs can simulate like we can," he said.
Tech runs simulations for the state, can track hurricanes in real time and was even hired by the state of Hawaii to run tsunami simulations. The program has expanded to include school and business planning as well.
"We're not limited geographically as long as it's in the U.S.," Leachman said. "Initially, the program was educating just core emergency management personnel, but the profession has grown so much."