Air Force ROTC Leadership Laboratory: Responding to a Pandemic Flu Outbreak at MIT

By Cadet Michael Arth, Det. 365, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Approximately 30 cadets from Detachment 365 came together with staff and students from MIT for a pandemic flu exercise at MIT Medical on 11 March 08. The exercise served for the 365th Cadet Wing as an opportunity to practice real-world leadership skills, said Cadet Wing Vice Commander Paul Estrada. But David M. Barber, MIT’s Emergency and Business Continuity Planner, saw the exercise as something more—a proving ground for the concept that ROTC cadets could be used by university administrations during a time of crisis. Barber, after observing cadets take part in the drill, stated, “we’ve got a valuable resource here.”

The idea for an AFROTC pandemic flu exercise came out of a research paper Cadet Wing Commander Katherine Ingle completed for her MIT class “Disease and Society”. In constructing the paper on emergency response to avian flu outbreaks, Cadet Ingle saw a tremendous gap between the demands placed on a university, like MIT, during an emergency response and the resources at the disposal of university officials. In the closing comments of her paper, Cadet Ingle conjectured that ROTC cadets might be an untapped resource available to university officials to create a uniformed presence with significant leadership training and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Her idea was picked up on by her professor, David Jones, who forwarded her paper to Peggy Enders in the Environment, Health, and Safety Office and the concept for a pandemic flu exercise, led by MIT AFROTC cadets, was born.

Cadet Ingle worked from early November through the day of the event to bring together MIT’s Environment, Health, and Safety Office, MIT Police, MIT Medical, the MIT Security and Emergency Management Office, and the cadets of the 365th Cadet Wing to perform one of the first joint ROTCUniversity Administration pandemic flu exercises of its kind. During the exercise, Field Training-bound cadets were put in charge of facility security, medical, student services, and communication teams and tasked to improvise how to deal with a chaotic and overcrowded medical facility in the wake of an avian flu outbreak in Boston.

GMC team leaders quickly rose to the challenge, although not without a few missteps. One of the biggest challenges cited by cadets in the debrief of the exercise was the struggle to communicate. In spite of radios and designated cadet runners, quickly, clearly, and concisely communicating valuable information between GMC teams, the exercise put the organizational and leadership skills of cadets to the test, said Cadet Nathan Elowe, the exercise’s facility security team leader. Cheryl Vossmer, an MIT Police Sergeant advising throughout the exercise, called the exercise, “an awesome opportunity to learn how the many facets of MIT work together.”