Co-President Dasha’s Practicum in Belize

By: Dasha Klebaner, SORT co-President
Summer 2014

I’ve been lucky enough to spend this summer working with CDC’s International Emergency Preparedness Team in Belize for my practicum. During the spring semester, I participated in weekly training workshops on emergency preparedness, plan development, and Emergency Operations Center development with IEPT in order to prepare for the summer. CDC IEPT does amazing work focused on increasing preparedness and emergency response capacity throughout the world and this is the first time they’ve had someone on the ground for an extended period of time in Belize. It’s been an amazing experience building connections with the Ministry of Health here, and learning about public health preparedness.
 I was given the task of researching and writing the first draft of the Belizean Ministry of Health’s All-Hazards Emergency Action Plan under the guidance of my supervisor, Belize’s Disaster Focal Point. The point of writing a plan from an “all-hazards” approach is to standardize the way a governing health body responds to public health emergencies. The same basic steps are often taken in nearly all public health emergencies, whether it be an influenza epidemic or a hurricane, and ensuring that these steps are not only followed consistently, but executed in an efficient manner, is essential to a cohesive response.

Through a series of interviews with Ministry of Health officials, consultations with CDC, and extensive conversations with my supervisor (who probably got tired of answering my questions), I gathered basic information about what is usually done to respond to emergencies, and what could be done better in the future. I gradually honed this information into a series of steps, broken down into strategic areas and followed by standard operating procedures. I also worked with MOH staff to develop Belize’s Incident Command System structure to ensure that the plan could be executed in the most standardized, efficient manner possible. Throughout all this, CDC supported my work with supplementary materials and templates to ensure consistency in Belize’s approach to emergency response.

Earlier in the summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a conference in Belize City with emergency coordinators from all the other Central American countries; it was a valuable experience to be able to see how culture and government structure influence emergency response, and to improve my non-existent Spanish! When you literally only know 10 words of a language, there’s nowhere to go but up.

In addition to working, I have also had the opportunity to do fun things (see pictures below)! Belize is an amazing country with so much to offer, and I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the highlights, ranging from massive Mayan ruins to incredible scuba diving sights! I also went ziplining in Guatemala, which was equally awesome. I’ve tried my best to learn some Creole, the language most Belizeans speak, but have only been successful in learning “Mek a tek wah picha,” which either means “Can I take your picture?” or “Can you take my picture?” That, and “Dis da fiwi chikn,” which is on a bunch of billboards advertising a poultry distributor and means “This is our chicken.” Clearly the Creole learning is going well. FYI, I probably butchered the spelling of both of those.

While I will miss this incredible country and its amazingly friendly people, I’m very excited to be back in Atlanta (with 20 bottles of Marie Sharp’s Habanero hot sauce in tow, obviously). I can’t wait to get back to classes (weird, I know), SORT activities, and of course, to a new class of SORT members in the fall!



The National Emergency Management Organization, or NEMO. I found it. Get it?


The path I took to work everyday. Although Belmopan is the capital, it’s rather small and has under 10,000 inhabitants. Belize itself has a little over 300,000 people! That’s half the size of most US cities.


One of the many temples in Tikal Park, which is the largest Mayan site. It held close to 90,000 inhabitants at its peak, and spans an area of 23 square miles. It is GORGEOUS!


Me looking much more intense than I actually am.


My best friend in Belize


Belize is clearly a very ugly country


Mental Health in Disasters

On January 29, 2013, eight SORT students attended the quarterly meeting of the Medical Reserve Corps for DeKalb County. While our specific aim was to attend the Disaster Mental Health Training being held that night, the event was a great opportunity to meet some of the administrators and volunteers involved in the Medical Reserve Corps. This group responds to disaster situations throughout the state, and especially those in DeKalb County. Corps members help run activities in Points of Dispensing (PODS), which are set up to attend to basic medical needs, dispense supplies and medications, and perform immunization activities during emergencies. We learned a little about the system, how to become a volunteer, and how volunteers are activated in the event of an emergency.

The main agenda for the evening was the abridged Disaster Mental Health Training course led by Jeanette David, the Disaster Mental Health Services Coordinator for Georgia. Mental Health is a crucial issue during disasters, as so many people and families affected by the situation may have mental health needs. This includes people with long-standing mental illness, but, as Ms. David stressed, it really includes everyone involved. We focused on the basics of psychological first aid, which involves supporting people during a time of crisis and trying to help them draw on their own resources and resilience to cope. We learned some common symptoms to look out for, and how to categorize the effects of stress into physical, cognitive, emotional and interpersonal/behavioral symptoms. To truly illustrate these concepts, we took turns drawing a representation of a symptom, and having our peers guess what we were showing. Hopefully our emergency response skills will be better than our collective drawing skills!

Finally, we discussed the importance of attending to our own mental health as responders to an emergency. This is a really important concept for all of us to keep in mind. We stressed the importance of attending to our own mental health needs before helping others, using the metaphor of what they announce in an airplane as part of the safety instructions – please put your oxygen mask on before helping others. Often, emergency responders get so caught up in assisting with response and recovery that they neglect to take care of themselves, which can place both them and those they are helping at risk. As at our previous SORT meeting, we discussed the concept of “vicarious trauma,” wherein volunteers can become traumatized themselves by listening to horrific story after story of those involved in the disaster. It is important to recognize this and take a step back or a break when required.

Attendees received a certificate of completion at the end for the Disaster Mental Health Training. We had a great time networking with our community partners and hearing about their experiences!


Megan Cohen is a first-year SORT student and completing a dual degree in Medicine and Public Health at Emory.

Learning about the CDC’s Emergency Operations Center (and many acronyms too!)

On Thursday, January 24, 2013 several SORT members attended a full-day training at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to become qualified to work in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

When the EOC is activated, SORT members may be called upon for a variety of tasks that require an understanding of the organizational structure and systems in place at the EOC.  Students heard presentations from each of the main units in the EOC, including the Logistics section and the Operations section. It was fascinating to learn about the equipment and supplies that are available from the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) at a few hours’ notice in the case of an emergency.

During the training, students interacted closely with CDC employees by engaging in-group exercises. Software demonstrations were also conducted to familiarize trainees with the EOC’s intranet platform.

Finally, the day wrapped up with a tour of the EOC. For those of us who have not yet worked on a response, it was pretty amazing to see such a state-of-the-art facility and know that we are very well equipped to handle a wide range of emergency responses. As a student in the Behavioral Sciences and Health Education department at Rollins, my favorite part was learning about the function of the Joint Information Center (JIC) and the channels through which they handle risk communication. Although no one ever “wants” the EOC to be activated, I look forward to volunteering at the EOC should we be called upon for assistance!

To learn more about the EOC visit:

To contact SORT, please email

Samantha Jacobs is a first-year MPH candidate in the Behavioral Sciences and Health Education department at the Rollins School of Public Health. She has been a member of SORT since fall of 2012.