Q&A: Mariah Armitage

A Dallas area native and graduate of Lake Highlands High School and the University of North Texas, Mariah Armitage is familiar with the challenges facing emergency planners and first responders in the DFW Metroplex. Having studied emergency management and worked in that field for more than a decade—first with a Washington D.C. based company as a counter terrorism and emergency management consultant, and later as a staffer for the City of Arlington, Dallas County and the City of Plano—she joined UT Dallas in March as the Director of Emergency Management and Continuity Planning.

Over the course of her career, Armitage has helped coordinate emergency response efforts in the wake of natural disasters, including several hurricanes that struck Southeast Texas and the Gulf Coast in the mid to late 2000s. Critical to any emergency management leader, Armitage says, is the ability to foster relationships between planners, responders and constituents. That, she says, will be the same at UT Dallas. “I like to say that emergency management is like the conductor of an orchestra,” she said. “You’ve got all the people who play all different types of instruments together, and we provide the sheet music—the direction for where we’re going—and provide the information they need to carry out their individual areas.”

How does your role in emergency management at UT Dallas differ from past positions you’ve held in emergency management at the municipal government level?

Emergency management at the city level is very similar to the university. There are some differences: The challenges with the university level are the continual changeover and the graduation of new students and new students coming in. But it’s similar in the sense that [at the city level] new citizens come in and relocate from different parts of the country.

My duties here are a little bit more expanded, though. I have oversight over lab safety as well as fire and life safety and emergency management.

UT Dallas has a great reputation and it’s its own little city. I would like to help ensure that our students, faculty and staff are in a safe environment and help them learn how to prepare for disasters. Serving as Director of Emergency Management is a wonderful opportunity and I’m excited to be a part of the UTD family.

What types of emergency situations require the most consistent planning and preparation from you and your team?

There are common hazards, fire being one, that certainly are very concerning. Severe storms are another that gets a lot more recognition in that regard, especially during storm seasons. That’s something we constantly educate people on. We have people coming in that are from different countries. Our outdoor warning system produces a wailing noise, and to them that might mean something different. It might mean a tsunami warning to them. So we have to make sure that we educate those people on something as simple as that, as well as educate them on the difference between watches and warnings and what type of action they have to take in those instances. It’s something that’s very common here in Tornado Alley.

There are other hazards associated with severe storms. Straight-line winds occur way more often than an actual tornado. Hail is another big one. In 1995 at Mayfest, a festival in Fort Worth, we had some severe weather in the area that triggered hail and 13 people died as a result. And lightning actually kills quite a few more people than tornadoes, so we let people know that if you can hear it, it can strike near you. So just making sure that those everyday types of hazards, that we’re educating people on them, that’s the challenge and definitely keeps us busy.

What goals or projects are on the horizon for UT Dallas’ emergency management?

I really want to re-evaluate our hazards and do what’s called a Hazard and Vulnerability Analysis. It ranks the hazards that the community and campus face. So I’ll be working to re-evaluate that, and that will drive our plans and help us determine some standard operating procedures that need to be written.

But I think even more important than that is establishing relationships internal to the university and external to the university. It’s very important that people understand what it is that emergency management does, what we can provide them and how we can help—establishing and maintaining good relationships so that people recognize our faces and don’t just see us when things are not going well. That includes key relationships with the City of Richardson emergency management, police and fire, the American Red Cross and other entities that would assist the university in the event of an emergency.

Were there any specific experiences in the past that you feel helped prepare you for your position at UT Dallas?

When I was with the City of Arlington, Hurricane Katrina occurred. The City of Arlington stepped up and we had about 13,000 evacuees from Louisiana and the surrounding areas that we sheltered. It was a very big operation. It really struck me to see face to face the people that we were helping. They were so grateful and so kind. I just really felt for their situation.

That was my first real major disaster as an emergency manager. I remember working 10, 15 hours a day. They were very, very long days. We had to set up emergency shelters and take into consideration children and people with special needs, people with dietary restrictions; making sure that people who were injured and had special health needs were taken care of. It taught me how important it was to coordinate with multiple agencies and how to pull those resources together for a common effort; how it’s important to have those relationships established ahead of time and not to be there to tell people what to do but to be there to let people know, “These are what our capabilities are and these are what our gaps are. What are your capabilities and gaps?” Knowing what those are ahead of time and complementing each other is the key to the effective coordination of a disaster response.

Part of emergency management at UT Dallas is the emergency notification system. On occasion when it has been used in the past, staff have reported seeing delays in receiving email or text notifications. What steps are you taking to ensure people within the UTD community are receiving the necessary warnings and information?

The purpose of the UTD notification system is to be redundant so that in the event of one failing, there’s another way for the message to reach the intended audience. Sometimes there are factors that come into play that could not be foreseen that cause those failures to happen. To try to mitigate those incidents from happening we have a fairly robust testing system.

One of the things we’re starting to do is test the UTD alert system monthly in concert with the outdoor warning system. So the first Wednesday of every month at noon, unless it’s overcast or rain is forecasted for that day, we will sound the outdoor warning system to make sure those are functioning properly and then we’ll also send out a UTD alert—an email and text—saying “This is a test.” That will help us make sure that if there are any system glitches that we don’t know about yet, they might show up then and give us time to get those fixed.

I think it’s actually a fairly large, redundant system we have in place. We’ve got the UTD alert, which is text and email, the indoor warning system, the outdoor warning system, the university’s main Facebook and Twitter profiles, the website and the university hotline. Some jurisdictions just have some type of alert system, a website and then media releases; and those are the three ways they communicate. I think ours is a really good, robust, redundant system.

What are your impressions of UT Dallas after your first few months on the job?

It is a great campus, and one of the things that struck me is all the growth. I’m really excited for the university to see that growth and to see all the new opportunities we’ll have to serve our students and faculty and staff.

What keeps you busy when you’re away from campus?

Usually my time is taken up with my family. I have four children. Their names all start with E—Ethan, Evan, Emma and Elijah. It was not intentional; it just kind of worked out that way. But when I was expecting my fourth child I couldn’t have Ethan, Evan, Emma and Bob. I was committed at that point [laughs].

The oldest is 10 and the youngest is 10 months. We do a lot of things together. They like to go swimming; they like to go to the zoo and museums.

What I like to do is read. If there’s a good book in front of me, I can finish it in one night. If it’s 700 pages, no problem, I can knock it out. Now if you put a procedure manual in front of me, it could take me a week [laughs]. But if it’s a good book, no problem. I really like medical thrillers, so I’m a big fan of Michael Chrichton, Steven King, and Robin Cook. That’s my thing.

 

Last Modified: May 29, 2015