By Lexie McClendon
When disaster strikes—whether as a flood, wildfire, hazardous material incident, pandemic or other emergency—EKU’s Homeland security graduates stand ready to respond. Homeland Security senior Hannah Gabbard is already making a vast impact locally and nationally in her field of disaster management.
While working as a technical support specialist with Jackson County Emergency Management, Gabbard produced a patient tracking system to be used in the event of a chemical weapons incident. Her low-technology solution to a complex problem earned recognition by the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Kentucky Emergency Management and is now considered a Jackson County Best Practice by CSEPP. With this experience under her belt, she earned a competitive internship with the United States Department of Agriculture in the Office of Safety, Security, and Protection (OSSP).
Gabbard says her driving force is to, “Keep people safe. That's all I've ever wanted to do—just respond to help people. That's it.” Her passion for helping people made pursuing homeland security at EKU an easy choice.
As a sophomore, Gabbard reached out to the director of Jackson County Emergency Management, Jamie Strong, in hopes of getting experience in her chosen field while helping her home community. Due to the small size of the community, the director was the only emergency management position—in a county that neighbors Madison County, which was home to 523 tons of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile at the BlueGrass Chemical Depot. After Gabbard shadowed the director, Strong went to the fiscal court asking to add a position to the department so they could utilize Gabbard’s skillset. From there, Gabbard became a part-time technical support specialist in Jackson County.
In the position, Gabbard learned the intricacies of emergency management including general policies, procedures and first response codes, aligning with the knowledge she was gaining through her coursework. The hands-on work in her position further fueled Gabbard’s passion for helping others, leading her to volunteer as a firefighter with the local fire department for the past three years.
Gabbard’s work with Jackson County Emergency Management and the fire department, along with the homeland security coursework at EKU, laid the foundation for her internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the OSSP. The internship is highly competitive and selective, encouraging students with impressive backgrounds to apply. After a couple of intensive interviews, Gabbard was offered the internship on the spot.
The all-expense paid internship consisted of a month in Washington, D.C., at the OSSP headquarters. As a Pathways intern, Gabbard rotated to a different division each week, giving her the opportunity to work with safety, training, and emergency management and facility protection.
“It's a wonderful atmosphere. I couldn't have asked for better people to work with. I learned so many things that I had no idea about, just in the span of about 30 days. It was insane,” said Gabbard.
Gabbard credits her success to the intensity of the homeland security program. In particular, she used to struggle with public speaking. However, the homeland security coursework molded her into being comfortable and skilled in that area.
“The program teaches you everything you need to know in order to speak fluently and get your point across. So I took that, and here I am. I'm going to Washington, D.C., and I'm talking in front of senior leaders. I couldn’t do that freshman year. The program taught me how to do that,” said Gabbard.
Post-graduation, Gabbard plans to go back to OSSP and would like to eventually end up working in executive protection, such as law enforcement, federal law or the Secret Service. At the end of the day, Gabbard holds true to her values and wants to be of service to her community.
“Hannah had an amazing accomplishment this year with her ‘cost-effective solution to tracking difficulties in local communities to ensure the accountability of citizens and resources during disasters and coordinated exercises per the Incident Command System,’” said Dr. Chad Foster, campus coordinator and associate professor for homeland security at EKU. “Her work on this project demonstrates top-notch problem-solving, critical thinking and creative thinking skills, among others.”
EKU’s Homeland Security program started in 2007 and has become one of the leading and largest programs in the nation, instructing students on the theories, strategies and applications of safeguarding life and property. The bachelor of science degree offers specialization opportunities in disaster management, intelligence studies and security operations and management. EKU Homeland Security majors go on to provide meaningful work in service to others with public and private agencies, such as FEMA, the FBI, the Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration, among others.