Campus News

USC faculty member wins Award of Excellence for emergency preparedness

“The goal is to have a plan for sustainability even when things are going well.”

Bokie Muigai October 31, 2022

Associate Professor Rita Burke, PhD, MPH, has been selected as a 2022 recipient of the Award of Excellence from the Business and Industry Council for Emergency Planning and Preparedness (BICEPP). The organization is a non-profit association in emergency management comprised of professionals from the private and public sector. The council recognizes and honors individuals who have shown outstanding achievement in the field of emergency preparedness, management, response, mitigation, communications, and recovery.

Rita Burke, PhD, MPH
Rita Burke, PhD, MPH (photo courtesy Rita Burke)

“This award was a surprise! I am extremely grateful for being recognized for my work from such a distinguished and well-respected group,” shares Burke, an associate professor in clinical population and public health sciences and pediatrics. “I really admire the work they have done in the county, and it means a lot to be recognized by my peers and colleagues.”  She will be awarded at the BICEPP Annual Award Dinner on November 17, 2022, in Los Angeles, California.

Read her interview below

Tell us about your work in emergency planning and preparedness.

I am working on a few projects that I would like to highlight. The first is a collaboration between the Los Angeles Department of Public Health and some of our local school districts to identify barriers to preparedness for students—especially those with access and functional needs. Our work became particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were closed and the services that students relied on were no longer available to them. We witnessed a significant regression in their overall development—especially their social-emotional needs. I am also involved in the Pediatric Pandemic Network. This is a multi-center effort funded by [the Health Resources and Services Administration] whose aim is to empower all healthcare systems and their communities to be prepared to provide high-quality, equitable pediatric care in everyday emergencies and disasters.

What does your research involve?

The first piece of my work is identifying barriers faced by children, and the second part is addressing them. We’re developing tools and resources for parents and schools to address the kids’ needs.  It has been wonderful to work with stakeholders in this space because they are very receptive and welcoming. As we wrapped up our activities of the past academic year, it felt as though the teachers were appreciative of our work. They had someone to listen to their concerns and take note of their suggestions of what school districts could do better. Similarly, the parents were grateful that someone cared about how their children were fairing and was identifying gaps for what could be improved.

What do you enjoy most about working in this space? 

I enjoy the collaborative aspect. I get to work with some incredible people in the field.  I also enjoy witnessing the impact of my work, where we identify a need, work with our team, and then develop resources and interventions. It’s gratifying to finally see our work come to fruition and witness the impact it has in the community—it affirms that we can really make a difference.  Something else that I appreciate about my role, is being able to bring in students that have a shared interest and guide them through the entire research process in this area.

What is the importance of emergency preparedness in protecting communities? 

The pandemic highlighted the importance of preparedness and resilience and brought to light many concepts that we collectively had not thought about. In 2017, I co-wrote a paper about whether the U.S. was prepared for a pediatric infectious disease pandemic, and to no one’s surprise, unfortunately, the answer was no. At least one of the positives that has come out of the pandemic is the importance of preparedness and thinking about how we can make our communities more resilient for when the next big disaster strikes.

One of the biggest challenges with emergency preparedness is that it’s not a proactive field. When an event happens, it may be effectively addressed with funding and the allocation of resources. But then folks think “we’re done,” and move on to the next topic. That infrastructure that was initially put into place starts to weaken as there are no plans for continuity. We then have a vicious cycle where our public health infrastructure is weakened, as investment is dependent on disasters. The goal is to have a plan for sustainability even when things are going well. It’s hard to scale-up in the event of a disaster. We saw this during the pandemic, when our local public health departments needed to hire thousands of people in order to be contact tracers and handle the work that the pandemic brought on.  

What would you want for students who are not familiar with this field to know about the profession?

It has so much relevance to our daily lives, especially living in Los Angeles. We are in the land of earthquakes, where it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” We need to be prepared. It doesn’t have to be on a large scale. We can encourage students to start small—maybe over the course of the semester making a disaster kit for the car or workplace. It’s important to divide it into manageable parts so that we don’t get overwhelmed and as a result fail to do anything at all. Even just doing a small part makes a difference and helps us be more prepared. 

I teach PM 567 Public Health Disaster Management and Response, where students raise many questions about emergency preparedness. I try to relay the importance of disaster management, because it’s something we don’t pay enough attention to, because it’s unpleasant. Yet, students who are interested in this line of work would be preparing their organizations, counties, or cities for the next emergency and making them more resilient in the face of disaster. 

Rita Burke, PhD, MPH, is an associate professor in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC. She was sworn in to the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters, in February 2022.  The federal advisory committee provides advice and guidance to the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and to the HHS Secretary.