Campus: San Diego State University -- July 13, 2005

Homeland Security 101: A Sense of Humor is Key to Success of Disaster Readiness Project for College Students

A sense of humor is a key ingredient of a pilot "Cover Your Assets!" disaster readiness project for college students that organizers hope becomes a model for other campuses.

San Diego State University is the testing ground for the demonstration project that mixed light-hearted jabs at duct tape, shrink wrap and color-coded terrorism alerts with serious advice and a practical new way to stay prepared.

"Don't leave home without it," advises a six-minute video produced by San Diego State students about an informational "cover your assets" handout that folds up into the size and shape of a credit card. The handout stores emergency contact numbers and other information.

"We had to be politically correct and say 'assets,' but it's catchy and students respond," said Karen Garman, an adjunct faculty member at San Diego State and president of the consulting firm HELP Inc. (for Healthcare, Education, Leadership and Performance).

Garman was project director with San Diego State's College of Health and Human Services for the disaster preparedness demonstration project. The project was funded by the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency via monies provided to California agencies from the federal Department of Homeland Security to address disaster and bioterrorism preparedness.

Cell phones don't always work in a disaster, and for the cell phone generation, that means emergency telephone numbers need to be stored the old-fashioned way, on the fold-up form. The form also comes with emergency numbers, sections to fill in the blanks with personal information and instructions on how to put together a portable emergency kit.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the project's goal was to move beyond efforts to secure campus buildings to focus on the safety of the students who use them. "They're a high risk group who are probably going to be away from home when something happens, commuting from campus or living on campus," Garman said.

Hence, the focus on what would prove portable when researchers met with student groups at San Diego State and nearby Grossmont Community College. San Diego County alone is home to some 30 college campuses and an estimated 200,000 college students.

How to address emergency preparedness also had to take into account the unique attitudes of the students. "The terrorist attack happened four years ago, and for someone who is 18 or 19 now, it was a part of their childhood. Us old folks say, boy has the world changed, and they are saying, this is the world," Garman said.

"When we asked the students to put something together, they were making light of it because of all the hype, but knowing at the same time how serious this is. It's a part of their lives now," she said. San Diego State communications students Kim Gerhardt and Ashley Borden produced the video, with Gerhardt writing the script and Borden starring in the video.

Following advisory group meetings last year and votes by student focus groups for a "cover your assets" logo, 5,000 cards were distributed to students at the San Diego State campus this spring. The high success rate led to the decision to distribute another 3,000 cards to incoming freshmen at San Diego State in August.

Organizers learned early that simply having students hand cards to their peers was not as effective on campuses where students can be inundated with handouts on their way to classes. "If somebody hands you a card on campus, you pretty much think they're selling something," Garman said.

The project's best successes came with showing the video in classrooms and in student residence halls before handing out the cards. "We wanted to say to other colleges, here are three different models and here's what was successful," Garman said.

Interestingly, while research shows that females and males tend to respond differently by participation rates in certain projects, the response for this effort was the same from male and female college students. "In this generation, there's no gender difference when it comes to disaster preparedness," Garman said.

"We feel it was a success on many levels. Students can influence their families, because it generates another level of conversation," Garman said. "Students who participated felt they adding to the overall benefit of the community, and in knowing that if one person knows what to do should anything happen, it's well worth the effort." And, she added, "it really was a fun project."

Editor's Note: A copy of the six-minute video on DVD is available by contacting San Diego State Media Relations at (619) 594-4298.

Contact: Renee Haines, SDSU Marketing & Communications, (619) 594-4298,

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