Pitt Receives $8.4 Million to Improve Disaster Preparedness

Issue Date: 
October 27, 2008

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will award $8.4 million over the next five years to the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) to create a Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center.

Realizing that acting quickly and effectively during major disasters often means the difference between life and death on a large scale, the federal government is looking for ways to improve preparedness and emergency response systems across the country.

GSPH’s new center will develop methods to evaluate emergency response plans and “best practices” to handle public health emergencies caused by the spread of infectious diseases, defective water and sewage systems, natural disasters, or intentional acts.

“The capacity of local governments to respond to public health disasters varies greatly from region to region,” said Maggie Potter, principal investigator of the grant and associate dean and director of the Center for Public Health Practice in GSPH. “We know the difference between a poor response and an effective one based on actual outcomes, but we know much less about the underlying reasons why some plans work well and others fail.”

Potter and her team will focus initially on infectious diseases, such as the flu, to develop criteria and metrics for emergency preparedness, model their effectiveness using sophisticated computer-based techniques, and develop new standards for emergency responses to improve quality of life for community members.

“Public health emergencies create heavy demands on state and local health agencies, but by using these quantitative methods, we can target the spending for preparedness more wisely and make better decisions about handling emergencies when they arise,” Potter said.

The center also will focus on emergency preparedness in vulnerable communities—those that typically lack access to resources and services.

“We know from research and experiences like Hurricane Katrina that race, ethnicity, poverty, disability, age, and other factors that affect health status during routine times put individuals and families at greater risk during an emergency,” said Sandra Quinn, coprincipal investigator of the grant and associate dean of student affairs and education in GSPH. “Our research will help public health systems be more effective at protecting diverse communities. Part of our center will focus on how we can develop a more integrated and comprehensive approach to emergency planning that includes more marginalized communities that aren’t typically part of that process.