Which ranks among the many reasons the new Emergency Response to Terrorism Workshop came into being.
Across a two-weekend slate blending classroom time with demonstrations and hands-on experiential activities, students got to think about, watch, and get their hands dirty doing what first responders actually do in response to shootings, bombings, and even chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents.
Libby Flatoff, who’s majoring in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies, was among those who were trying to stop the “bleeding” from lifelike body parts spurting fake blood, as well as donning a hazmat suit and dragging classmates around on rescue sleds.
“It showed us how heavy—and hot—the suits are,” Flatoff says, “and how little dexterity one has when inside!”
“My motivation for pulling together this class was that most of our students will go on to work in desk jobs, where a better understanding of some of the realities of what practitioners do in the field would help them be more effective,” says Professor Philipp Bleek, who coordinated the class.
“We often talk about the civil and military divide, but less often about the desk job versus frontline first responder divide.”
As part of the workshop, Bleek drew from his own operational experiences, which include serving as an emergency medical technician (EMT) many years ago and, more recently, as a Pentagon staffer helping soldiers and others prepare for contingencies involving Syrian chemical weapons.
“I love talking to first responders and better understanding the TTPs—tactics, techniques, and procedures—they employ to respond to actual contingencies,” he says.
Bleek credits a specific student’s contributions as being fundamental to creating the class.
Zach Ackemann MANPTS ’24, who’s working toward a bachelor’s in International Policy and master’s in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies, also works as a firefighter in Santa Cruz County. In that capacity, he has helped to organize large-scale multi-agency mass casualty incident response exercises—with as many potentially jarring details as possible, including faux ammunition, bombs, and scary moulage makeup on “victims” acting the part with maximum authenticity.
The drills were useful, but they historically hadn’t included any tools to analyze the performances of first responders, something Ackemann felt was desperately needed if they wanted to actually improve future responses.
How long did it take to treat and evacuate all of the “patients” from the danger area? How fast could the fire agencies and law enforcement establish a unified command? He wanted more detailed and nuanced reporting than participant surveys and casual feedback provided, so he reached out to the Institute on a whim to see if there might be any student volunteers open to collecting data.
Four attended in 2021 and five more helped in 2022; the data they collected, per Ackemann, was “fantastic.” Several of those volunteers ended up joining the in-person course.
That successful collaboration, meanwhile, led to the hands-on class, which draws students from across Institute programs. Ackemann and a few colleagues are looking at ways to expand doing both exercises and research related to them at a national level.
Ackemann sounds a little surprised that when confronting scenes of suffering—which could get dark—something else emerges.
“Oddly enough, it’s given me a lot of hope for humanity as a whole,” he says. “For every single one of those scenes, there’s someone trying to help. I’ve seen everyday people—moms, soccer coaches, truck drivers, you name it—do incredible things to make sure people they’ve never met before, and will probably never see again, get help on some of the worst days of their lives.
“That willingness from so many people of all walks of life to drop everything to help someone else is humbling and inspiring every time I see it,” he continues. “Of all the things that make me feel good about being a firefighter, that might be at the top of the list.”
For students, one major takeaway might sound self-evident: first responders inside those fire engines, police cars, or ambulances that race to emergencies are people.
“Very rarely does the public get the chance to interact with firefighters, police officers, EMTs and paramedics, or dispatchers on a more personal level,” Ackemann says. “For students that may go on to higher levels of government or work with institutions developing policy solutions to social challenges, understanding how that system works and understanding the people who serve is really critical to writing effective policy. This course has been very helpful in improving students’ understanding of that.”
Thirty-five Middlebury Institute students were joined by students and faculty from other area institutions for a weekend-long exercise simulating diplomatic negotiations during an international crisis.
Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies professor Philipp Bleek will serve as an expert on a forthcoming National Academy of Sciences study on assessing and improving strategies for countering the threat of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) terrorism.