Hillsborough County – The women behind Hillsborough’s COVID-19 response

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Four women who have combined their training and experience in emergency management to serve

Emergency management is changing. Population growth, a global pandemic, and escalating natural and man-made disasters are the main reasons why the field has an evolving scope.

In Hillsborough County, there is another notable change. As a powerful 17-person team, the county’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is dominated by women. Torii Sutherland, Katja Miller, Julia Watson and Clarissa Grant are four of the women who are changing the face of emergency management.

The tides of change

They are in good company. For the first time in history, the nation’s emergency management departments – the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Fire Administration – are both headed by women.

When emergency management was in its infancy, the field naturally attracted people working in law enforcement, fire, and the military. Traditionally, these roles were dominated by men, so emergency management was too.

Miller, who focuses on social services and mass care for the county, looks forward to the continued evolution of emergency management with women in leadership positions. Grant, an operations coordinator, agrees. She hopes for more women in the field and more diverse leadership.

Miller and Grant’s wishes come true nationwide.

In the early days of emergency management, when personnel were drawn primarily from law enforcement, fire departments, and the military, emergency response was the primary focus. Today, response is one of the pillars of emergency management, and the field has grown to embrace preparedness and recovery in impactful ways.

What was once a field in which progression entered has now entered into a profession. Academia pushes people toward emergency management, fosters diversity, and—as Miller, Grant, Sutherland, and Watson have proven—when education meets experience, capability soars.

Education meets experience

A strong desire to use her skills to help people in times of crisis drove Sutherland from satellite communications to the military, and it eventually guided her to Hillsborough County. In his current role as Planning Section Chief, Sutherland is able to expand his knowledge base and use his talents to help Hillsborough residents at critical times. Sutherland has a master’s degree in biochemistry and says she is constantly learning in her position.

Likewise, Miller knew she wanted to serve. Starting his firefighting career at 18, Miller was hooked. While earning her bachelor’s degree at USF, a course called “Emergency Planning” opened her eyes to emergency management, and amid COVID-19 and 18-hour workdays, Miller pulled through, earning his mastery of crisis and emergency management.

Having her mother as the director of BayCare, Watson always knew she was destined for something in the medical field. She started out as a paramedic for Pinellas County, but wanted more. Helping people in emergencies was his passion, but Watson was looking to help people on a large scale. While working full time, Watson earned her undergraduate degree in emergency management and homeland security. Like Miller, while on the front lines of COVID-19, Watson completed her master’s degree in medicine and disaster management.

Grant chooses this line of work because of the great need. Grant says she has always had an interest in public health and science. And she carried that interest throughout her adult life. Grant holds a nursing degree, an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry, and a master’s degree in public health. Emergency management is an important component of public health, and Grant wanted to be able to help communities prepare for and recover from disasters at any time.

Women play an important role

At the end of Women’s History Month, specific questions about the role of women in emergency management were posed to the group.

What do women bring to this profession? Sutherland, Watson, Miller and Grant agree that compassion and resilience are just two of many qualities. And, in emergency situations, these capabilities are crucial.

How can the profession increase the number of women in the field? Through education and mentorship.

Finally, why should women be in emergency management? Their resounding response, “Why not?”

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