NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Gratitude Tour Rolls on with DEM Stop

Three staff sit at a conference table
DEM staff at the gratitude event include (from l) Lissa Snyders, Samantha Hughes and Jordan Southers.

Photo:  Credit Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

NIH leadership thanked the Office of Research Services’ (ORS) Division of Emergency Management (DEM) staff for their “grit and determination” while keeping NIH prepared and ready to respond to pandemics, natural disasters and other dangers. 

“What you accomplish is really amazing,” said ORS Director Colleen McGowan during a Nov. 2 “Gratitude Tour” stop in a Bldg. 31 conference room. “You are here when people need you most.” 

DEM, the principal emergency planning component for NIH, is responsible for coordinating resources essential for preparedness. The Emergency Communications Center (ECC), part of the division, receives service calls to dispatch police, fire and rescue and other emergency resources as required.

The ECC is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Last year, the center answered 30,000 calls, said DEM Director Jordan Southers. Personnel also monitor radios, alarms and cameras located around campus.

“The ECC staff does so much with grace under pressure,” said McGowan. “A lot of people who call are angry, anxious or agitated. We need to advocate for our staff [in the ECC] and make sure they get the respect they deserve.”

During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, DEM faced many challenges, said then-NIH Acting Principal Deputy Director Dr. Tara Schwetz. DEM set up a dedicated Covid-19 call center and worked with the Division of Occupational Health and Safety and the NIH Fire Department to open the Covid-19 testing car line at NIH Gateway Center. 

The division ordered and distributed more than 200,000 masks around campus over the course of the pandemic. DEM also helped NIH comply with Executive Order 14043, which requires Covid-19 vaccinations for federal employees. DEM created status reporting forms and other proof-of-vaccination documents. 

A group photo featuring DEM Staff and NIH leadership
NIH leadership including NIH Deputy Director for Management Dr. Alfred Johnson, McGowan, Chief of Staff John Burklow and then-NIH Acting Principal Deputy Director Dr. Tara Schwetz with DEM staff

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

DEM coordinated with ORS’s Program and Employee Services to launch the At-Home Antigen Test Kit Pilot for distribution of home Covid testing of NIH staff. Between February and September 2022, the program distributed more than 365,730 individual tests to 21,000 employees. 

“1,800 staff reported a positive test [to NIH] using those kits, allowing them to isolate at home,” Schwetz noted. “God only knows how many transmissions you’ve prevented from happening.” 

Neal smiles in her chair.
Dominique Neal in the Emergency Communications Center.

Photo:  Credit Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

Emergency Management Specialist Wael Khudr started at NIH in October 2020 and began working on the Covid-19 testing car line. Right off the bat, “there was so much on our plate,” he recalled. “Coming to NIH and seeing how everything was so well-organized was eye-opening.” 

Over the past few years, he’s been encouraged to take on additional responsibilities, something he couldn’t do where he previously worked. The division also plans and executes emergency training exercises and annual evacuation drills around campus. Along with the Fire Department and Division of Police, DEM recently conducted a full-scale active-shooter drill. 

NIH Deputy Director for Management Dr. Alfred Johnson said he has always noticed and respected DEM’s work preparing campus for and responding to emergencies. He first got to know the division’s importance when he was ORS director. Back then, he recalled, communicating during an emergency was a challenge. DEM has since debuted AlertNIH, the official emergency notification system for the NIH community. 

“You do so many great things for this community,” Johnson concluded. “We all really appreciate it.”

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The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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