By Angela Mennecke
First responders are the first line of defense in an emergency. Their ability to respond to and recover from emergencies is directly influenced by their preparedness level. College of DuPage Meteorology Professor Paul Sirvatka and Criminal Justice Professor Theo Darden are wary that law enforcement officials are as equipped as they could be when dealing with weather-related emergencies, which they say could have deadly consequences.
“The number one thing police officers deal with almost consistently is weather-related emergencies,” Sirvatka said. “Weather safety and weather response is a huge part of what they do, and I don’t think they know as much about it as they should.”
Sirvatka speaks from experience. As a leading expert in the field, he has taught many communities how to build weather preparedness plans. And for more than 25 years, Sirvatka has developed the College’s Meteorology program into one of the leading programs in the country.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with situations where emergency plans are weak and there are accidents waiting to happen,” he said. “Police departments generally consider themselves as responders rather than pre-disaster players. The more that we train police and first responders in weather, the safer our communities.”
Seeing this problematic oversight in several communities, Sirvatka wanted to make sure that students in COD’s Criminal Justice program were armed with the correct tools and techniques to respond to severe weather when they are on the front line. He set up a meeting with Darden to see if they could work together on an interdisciplinary curriculum.
Darden, a 17-year police veteran, said that one of the glaring omissions in criminal justice-related textbooks is understanding what law enforcement’s role is in inclement weather.
“In the United States you are more likely to be injured or even killed by inclement weather than by someone stabbing you, for example,” Darden said. “It’s a very important topic and one, to tell you the truth, that doesn’t come up very much in the discussions or in the current curriculum.”
Darden is beginning to work with other criminal justice faculty members to update the planning and advising worksheet to ensure that new students to the program are aware of the hazardous weather preparedness class offered by Sirvatka.
“As faculty, we need to talk to our students about choosing electives that would more align with what they would want to do professionally,” he said. “Criminal justice students need a science requirement, so instead of leading them blind to pick one, we need to be guiding them to what will benefit them in the future. A weather class counts as a science requirement, but many students don’t connect those dots.”
Sirvatka and the Criminal Justice faculty’s next step is to review the College’s Homeland Security program certificate class requirements to see if they can potentially incorporate a weather class into the curriculum.
“In most 14-week training academies, weather is only minimally touched upon,” Darden said. “They expect you to be trained on that when you are in your field training, but you need to be prepared before that takes place. In my 17 years, I can only think of a handful of times I learned about weather at an agency. Preparing our students ahead of time is setting them up for success.”
One past COD alumnus knows first-hand the importance of being trained in both disciplines. Dan Murray, a Woodridge police officer, uses his training as a COD storm chaser to keep his community safe. He also recently took Sirvatka’s hazardous weather preparedness class to stay abreast of current weather trends.
“Anyone who is responsible for public safety as it relates to weather would benefit from COD’s hazardous weather preparedness class, especially command-level staff who may be required to issue community alerts such as sounding the outdoor warning sirens in their community,” Murray said.
Murray earned his associate’s degree in Criminal Justice at COD in 1999, and once he was established in his career, decided to take advantage of COD’s Meteorology program.
“Meteorology is something that affects public safety as a whole,” Murray said. “Severe weather, floods, snow, cold and wind events can have lasting negative effects on us. By properly preparing for these events and taking steps in advance to mitigate any adverse effects we can prevent many serious problems. Anyone involved in public safety should have at least a basic knowledge of weather processes and hazards for their area.”
Murray spends his free time giving community talks on the importance of weather safety.
“I definitely have a strong respect for severe weather that most people outside of the plains don’t seem to have, and I try to pass that along to the other officers I work with so that when severe weather happens, it’s something that we all take seriously,” he said.
College of DuPage is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Serving approximately 25,000 students each term, College of DuPage is the largest public community college in the state of Illinois. The College grants seven associate degrees and offers more than 170 career and technical certificates in over 50 areas of study.
Caption: Woodridge Police Officer Dan Murray gives a community talk on weather safety in Lake Zurich.