Meet the team working to keep us all safe—and prepared

The University's emergency management team, from left: Matthew Shpiner, John Gulla, Anna Simko, Vincent Torres. Photo: T.J. Lievonen/News@TheU 

By Amanda M. Perez

The University's emergency management team, from left: Matthew Shpiner, John Gulla, Anna Simko, Vincent Torres. Photo: T.J. Lievonen/News@TheU 

Meet the team working to keep us all safe—and prepared

By Amanda M. Perez
The University of Miami’s emergency management team is working to create a disaster resilient University.

If a hurricane were to strike South Florida, would you know what to do to stay safe? This is a question everyone should ask themselves. At the University of Miami a team in the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is constantly working to get the message out across the institution on how to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from all major emergencies or disasters—including hurricanes.

“The University of Miami is an amazing, and incredibly safe place, and yet it is so important that every member of our community prepare for the infrequent, but potentially highly impactful emergencies that can affect us,” said Matthew Shpiner, director of emergency management.

Shpiner, who is a UM alumnus, is the leading force behind the team. He began working at the University seven years ago, and has held leading emergency management roles at UM’s marine campus, the University of Miami Health System and Miller School of Medicine. Prior to UM, Shpiner also worked for the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management.

Shpiner and his team work to instill a "culture of preparedness" among students and employees by improving awareness and comprehension of what to do before, during, and after major emergency and disaster incidents.

The messaging to students, faculty and staff begins during orientation and extends throughout the year. The team is in charge of offering several informational and in-person training opportunities for the UM community that vary from all-hazards emergency response courses to active shooter response exercises.

Jessica Brumley, vice president for Facilities Operations and Planning, which includes OEM, said it is "imperative that the culture of preparedness permeate" all operations in her division, including Facilities and Operations, Parking and Transportation, and Planning and Construction.

"Ultimately our mission is to ensure that the entire 'Canes community, on all campuses, are informed and prepared," Brumley said.

The emergency management team conducted comprehensive full-scale active shooter exercises on the Coral Gables and Medical campuses this spring and summer. These exercises, which took several months of planning, incorporated a multitude of community partners including local police and fire departments.

“Our exercise went through every phase from beginning to end. We even got employees to participate and either run, hide, or fight,” said Vincent Torres, emergency manager for UHealth System and the Miller School of Medicine.

Torres is one of the many people on the team who are equipped with a high level of expertise in emergency management. Before working at UM, Torres held a position as a Corporal in the U.S. Federal Reserve Police where he was in charge of emergency management at the Federal Reserve Bank—Miami Branch. Earlier in his career, he served as a Special Agent for the Department of Homeland Security.

John Gulla is another asset to the emergency management team who serves as the program coordinator, specifically for the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS). Gulla began his career at the University with the UM Police Department (UMPD) in 2007 while studying for his bachelor in arts degree. During his tenure at UMPD, Gulla worked as a telecommunications operator before moving into the role of crime prevention officer. He credits his frightening memories during Hurricane Andrew as part of the reason he transitioned into emergency management.

“I’ll never forget holding mattresses up against the doors in our bathroom at my house as we rode out the storm. It was a tough life event and it affected me greatly,” said Gulla. “I think that having gone through Hurricane Andrew, though, has given me an empathy to want to help people better prepare for emergency situations moving forward.”

Learning from the past, Gulla, along with the rest of the team work to imbue four simple steps while planning for hurricanes and other emergencies: Get informed, Get the guide, Get a plan and Get involved.

A vital part in getting informed is ensuring your cellphone is entered into CaneLink or Workday. During campus emergencies, critical life safety information is distributed via the Emergency Notification Network (ENN). If there is a condition which significantly threatens the health and safety of people on campus, university officials will warn the campus community through a variety of methods including text messages, voice calls, and email.

“The system can rapidly disseminate emergency information to the University community through eleven different methods of communication. What sets us apart is the capabilities the system has. We are able to relay information out to the public very quickly,” said Anna Simko, OEM program coordinator.

Simko is the newest member of the team who specializes in the technology aspect of emergency management. Simko, who previously held a role in emergency management at the University of Florida, says the department has the capacity to send out an array of alerts that deal with different hazards such as: extreme weather, hazardous materials, hurricanes, pandemics, radiological events, active threats, and utility failures.

In 2016 the emergency management team grappled with a major public health emergency: the Zika virus. It affected a wide range of students in South Florida, along with RSMAS students and faculty who were studying off the coast of Ecuador in the Galapagos. The emergency management team took on the critical task of making sure everyone was informed.

“Part of our job was to help educate and initiate direction for protective action. In this case we had to make sure people were wearing long sleeves and wearing repellant,” said Torres.

“At the Gables campus we worked with University Communications developing messaging, facilitating planning among key University units, and coordinating information with our government partners,” Shpiner added.

Last year the threat of Hurricane Irma proved the team was prepared to overcome the biggest threat that faced the university since 2005, when three hurricanes led to campus closures. Irma was the first time in the history of the university in which there was a mandatory evacuation of the Coral Gables campus.

“Ninety-eight point five percent of on-campus students self-evacuated. It was an incredibly stressful and difficult situation for our students, faculty, and staff, but they were able to understand the severity of the threat and most importantly took action,” said Shpiner. “The University of Miami took incredible steps to ensure the safety of our community. We were the first college in South Florida to close, initiated our emergency bus transportation plan to get students to local airports, and most importantly provided consistent communication on what was occurring.”

During Hurricane Irma, UM became the first institution to activate the National Intercollegiate Mutual Aid Agreement (NIMAA), an initiative spearheaded in part by UM in 2015. The initiative created a system that allows 77 institutions of higher education to provide and/or receive emergency assistance. During Irma, UM requested aid from partners at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas as well was from Binghamton University in New York.  

“Having the access to resources at a national level and among higher education colleagues who understand the unique dynamics of institutions is invaluable during emergencies,” said Shpiner.

Looking into the future, the emergency management team believes every storm makes them stronger and more versatile.

“We treat every storm seriously. We constantly analyze our operations to make sure we are getting better at what we do for response and recovery,” said Gulla.

Torres added: "We are very proactive. Our teams are extremely prepared and we drill and train often. The students are in good hands when they come here.”

As for those who are worried about future storms, the department has a powerful message they want to convey.

“We won’t compromise when it comes to safety. We work tirelessly to continue to improve our policies, plans, and procedures to ensure we are ready for any emergency we might face. However, our resiliency as a University is defined not by how we prepare as a department, but how we prepare as a community,” said Shpiner.

For more information on emergency preparedness, visit: https://prepare.miami.edu/

To register for upcoming training courses, faculty and staff can sign up at ULearn.miami.edu

Students can register at www.miami.edu/studentemergencytraining