10 Qs with Emma Paras
Denver Health and Hospital Authority
1. HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THE INDUSTRY?
4. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN GETTING THEIR
START IN THE FIELD?
While visiting the city of New Orleans at 10 years old, it almost instantaneously became my favorite city. I was enamored with the culture, diversity, history, and uniqueness of the metropolis. I first became interested in the field years later as a sophomore in high school watching news footage of Hurricane Katrina's devastating impacts in New Orleans and first learning about emergency management. The constant coverage of FEMA, Michael Brown, shortcomings and challenges at multiple levels of municipal emergency management piqued my interest in what the “right” way to do things looked like. I was fortunate that very close to my home in Cleveland, Ohio the University of Akron had an undergraduate program for Emergency Management and Homeland Security. I enrolled in the program becoming a paramedic along the way. After finishing school and working as a paramedic I decided to return to higher education and moved to Atlanta, GA where I attended Emory University pursuing a master’s in public health with a focus in environmental health and risk management. I gained international emergency management experience while working with the International Emergency Preparedness Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and research experience with Georgia’s State Department of Health Emerging Infections Program. After completing my master’s program, I took a fellowship position in emergency preparedness at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia which began my immersion and introduction to healthcare emergency management.
Find mentors that can help serve as advisors, guides, sounding boards, and confidants. Take any and all opportunities to learn about varying disciplines where emergency management plays a role. From municipal, business and private sector, healthcare, etc. there are so many areas where emergency management is necessary and growing. I think taking time to learn about these different disciplines and where/how emergency management fits in is important and can lead to a joyful and fulfilling career. Similarly, I think it is important to prioritize ongoing continuing education and professional development. It is often said that emergency managers have to know a little about a lot because you never know what type of hazard we may be responding to. By committing to lifelong learning, we can stay at the top of our game!
5. WHAT SUGGESTIONS DO YOU HAVE FOR BUILDING A POSITIVE
To be honest, you can teach anyone the basics of emergency management (hello IS 100 and 200!) but having a team with strong emotional intelligence is invaluable. Building a successful team means finding people who are collaborative, supportive, can overcome obstacles, take initiative, and communicate effectively. As a leader, I have learned a lot in the last two years about the characteristics to look for to build a strong team and how to pull the best out of people. I have also learned a lot about how to delegate and give my team a sense of ownership in their work. Having buy-in and sense of ownership with projects was really important to me when I first started out, so it is something I am trying to pass that onto those I now lead.
2. WHAT PROJECT OR ACHEIVEMENT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
Two projects and efforts stand out to me for what I am most proud of in my career thus far. First is the development of the Bio-Response Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). As a new grad in the fellowship program and having just come from the CDC, I began paying attention to the West African Ebola outbreak early in 2014. My boss at the time tasked me to monitor the outbreak and lead initial efforts to prepare the hospital should a patient suspected/confirmed for the infection present in one of our facilities. Planning and preparedness grew into an enterprise-level effort with multidisciplinary collaboration and coordination that
utilized the HICS model. During the height of the outbreak, I supported our hospital in responding to the triage, isolation, and treatment of patients under investigation. To take an “all-hazards approach,” I helped transition planning endeavors from Ebola specific to all highly infectious diseases, so regardless of the potential communicable disease, our staff were able to identify, isolate, and treat these patients safely, confidently, and comfortably. Over a six-plus year period, I managed a multi-million-dollar grant to sustain preparedness efforts, developed a training center and created a Training & Education Coordinator position. We utilized these
efforts for MERS-CoV, Zika Virus, and ultimately tapped into this work to initiate response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Our hospital was able to initiate response and activate incident command to mitigate early impacts of the pandemic because of our Bioresponse program.
The second effort I am very proud of is the work done to rebrand Emergency Management at my current institution, Denver Health and Hospital Authority. The COVID-19 pandemic was a stark eye-opener to the value and importance of emergency management for healthcare. Early in 2020, our health system leadership recognized a need to establish a dedicated Department for Emergency Management. Historically, this function was addressed through a role that managed fire & life safety, environment of care, and emergency preparedness. The purpose in this restructure was not only to meet immediate needs of the organization for coordination of response to COVID, but also to establish a program of excellence for Emergency Management in healthcare. Thus far in my tenure, I have worked to build a strong foundation and begin initiatives for enterprise-level preparedness that focuses on taking the all-hazards approach. Even as we have ridden the many waves of COVID surges and variants, I have led my team to champion an all-hazards approach to planning and preparedness. Amidst the pandemic there have been a myriad of other emergency situations confounding the public health crisis, such as
IT outages and severe weather, which further highlighted the need to ensure the health system is flexible with response. While there is still a lot of work to be done, I feel very proud of the strides we have made to rebrand emergency management and be a tool in the arsenal for planning, preparedness, prevention, response, and recovery.
6. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ADVANCING DIVERSITY IN THE INDUSTRY?
Look outside the “typical” industries like first responders for new recruits. Advertise our industry to younger audiences through career fairs and inform high schoolers about associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in emergency management as they explore options for higher education. Expand certification programs within existing colleges and universities and particularly focus on ways to partner with HBCUs. At every opportunity, we should be advertising introductory courses/certifications/classes such as FEMA’s IS program.
7. AS COMPANIES IN THE INDUSTRY INCREASE THEIR EFFORT TO RECRUIT MORE WOMEN, WHAT ARE SOME WAYS COMPANIES CAN SUPPORT RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION EFFORTS?
Providing the opportunity in the first place! As I’ve mentioned before, I think there is huge value in recruiting early (i.e., getting students enrolled in emergency management certifications and programs) and looking beyond the historically tapped industries (i.e., military and first responders) to recruit people from other areas. It would behoove us to remember that communities do best in the aftermath of emergencies when those leading the charge represent the communities they serve. Therefore, recruitment efforts should be aimed at ensuring we have a diverse group of people in Emergency Management. Retention to me means working for an organization that provides opportunity for professional development and continual education. Additionally, having an emergency management team that is supported through personnel and funding will help prevent burnout and retain talent.
8. HOW DO YOU STAY ENGAGED WITH YOUR COMMUNITY?
I have made a conscious effort to connect with my community both professionally and
personally. Professionally, I volunteered to serve as the healthcare representative on the
Governance Board of our Regional Healthcare Coalition. This has allowed me to meet and engage with key stakeholders across different agencies in a more intimate setting. Building these relationships has been vitally important for understanding the politics and culture of my region. Additionally, I have been an active IAEM member for over a decade and have been an AEM/CEM mentor for several years. This again has been a great opportunity to support emerging leaders in the field and pass along knowledge that was beneficial to me early in my career (or help prevent mistakes I made through trial and error!). Finally, working for a safety net institution in the city helps me stay cognizant for the needs of my community. Through our health system, there has been opportunity for me to volunteer at community COVID-19 vaccine events and special ad hoc clinics including those we stood up to support Afghan evacuees who were resettling in Colorado in late 2021.
3. WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE A ROADBLOCK FOR WOMEN IN THE INDUSTRY?
I think there are some disciplines of Emergency Management which still operate under the “good ol’ boys club.” Historically, the industry was largely made up of former military personnel and first responders, both industries which have been predominantly male. I observed this even as an undergraduate student where most of my peers were men gaining their degree as a second
career after serving in the military or working as a first responder. While this type of knowledge and experience can definitely help in some factions of Emergency Management, we as an industry must keep growing and look beyond this narrow pool of people as experts. Emergency preparedness and response is done best when those leading the efforts represent the communities they serve. This must include women, minorities, and people of color.
9. ANY TIPS FOR WORK/LIFE BALANCE?
This is a continual work in progress for me! I can very easily get wrapped up in work but having outlets is really important. For me personally, I love to run, so I make sure to set aside time during the week to run both with friends, run clubs, and solo. Although it can be hard in our line of work, finding time to disconnect from electronics is also really important for my mental health. I have found success with this by developing an on-call system wherein our team rotates on-call on a weekly basis. Particularly for the weekends, this helps ensure we can disconnect to recharge and prevent burnout while knowing the organization is supported should there be a need.
10. WHATS A FUN FACT ABOUT YOU THAT PEOPLE MIGHT NOT
My cat is named after my favorite disaster, Hurricane Camille which hit the Gulf Coast in 1969.