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Getting right on TRACC with START

Getting right on TRACC with START

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jessica Porter, Risk Communication & Community Resilience Research Intern

Training in Risk and Crisis Communication Project, Center of Excellence for the Study of Terrorism and Behavior Project

Summer 2013

University of Maryland, Class of 2014


In the past year, the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shooting, Hurricane Sandy and most recently the Boston bombings devastated U.S. communities and challenged U.S. responders with mitigating the unthinkable. These instances, including two intentional attacks and one natural disaster, expectedly differ when it comes to recover and rebuilding. However, what these cases do have in common is a need for effective communication. Communication is more than just two or more people talking to each other and exchanging information - communication plays an integral role in crisis response and has the potential to save lives, protect infrastructure and eventually help with community rebuilding.

The Boston bombings sparked my interest and belief that the field of communication is extremely pertinent. Previously, I viewed many crises from a political or economic standpoint based on my double major in government and politics and international business. Now, I know there is much more to the equation. START’s communication work takes a social scientific perspective, and has introduced me to science-based approaches to communication and problem solving. The scientific process is sometimes absent from communication work, and I have been at the forefront of not only learning how theories inform communication, but also in applying the science to real-life examples like those mentioned above.

START’s Training in Risk and Crisis Communication (TRACC) project is a strategic mix of communication theory, social scientific perspective and real-life examples used simultaneously to create a pragmatic curriculum. This curriculum seeks to remedy missing gaps in risk and crisis communication trainings, ultimately improving community resilience through practitioner training.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency understands the importance of education in communication, and thus funded this project that brought together researchers, instructors from the University of Maryland and expert participants from local, state and national organizations and branches of government.

Launched in June 2013, the pilot brought government officials from organizations including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Maryland Emergency Management Agency, Food and Drug Administration and University of Maryland Police Department, among others. I enjoyed meeting a group of advanced practitioners and watching both participants and instructors contribute to the conversation covering best communication practices. The training’s novel crisis communication simulation was by far my favorite part of TRACC. The simulation facilitated an online multi-party crisis, where practitioners used their previous knowledge and new skills from training and put them to use in a fast paced scenario. I appreciated this component of the training because, before the simulation, I did not understand the chain of command in a crisis situation, but by the end I had learned the chain of command. This live-action opportunity was impressive and comforting, particularly because our practitioners successfully communicated about a very real disaster.

TRACC is only one of several projects at START that helps practitioners prepare and respond to crises. During my internship, I also researched and analyzed these same events on various online discussion forums through The Center of Excellence for the Study of Terrorism (CSTAB) project. I have analyzed and coded extremist movements of domestic terrorists who openly discuss government countermeasures. This project is incredibly interesting and quite satisfying because my work is quantifiable: I completed more than 20 coding schemes, a task I had never completed before starting this internship.

Education and simulations have potential to make impacts that are larger than we can imagine. Disseminating information and putting newfound knowledge into action will help tremendously at every level of risk and crisis communication.  In other words, giving our practitioners necessary tools and information will help them mitigate crisis situations and teach the public how they can best prepare, respond and recover after a tragedy.  After interning at START I know the importance of “getting a kit, making a plan, and being informed” - do you?


In furtherance of its educational and professional development mission, START invites its students to write about their research experiences with the Consortium. 

This blog represents the opinions of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of START or any office or agency of the United States Government.