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Sam Shartar: The art of minimizing danger

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | June 14, 2013

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Sam Shartar is senior administrator for Emory's Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR). Emory Photo/Video.

Glancing out his office window, Sam Shartar has a front-row seat for a gathering storm — on this day, a bruised canvas of dark clouds boiling towards campus.  

As senior administrator for Emory's Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR), it's an advantage to have an eye on severe weather, one of a number of public safety issues that his office anticipates, monitors and prepares for in planning and coordinating Emory's response to catastrophic events.  

In some ways, Shartar specializes in worst-case scenarios: Chemical spills. Tornadoes. A train derailment. You name the disaster and chances are he's helped outline a response.  

As jobs go, running the daily operations of the CEPAR office may sound like a recipe for an ulcer — a position necessarily steeped in worries.  

But Shartar seems at ease in a job dependent upon intensive planning, preparation and probability. It helps to have a professional life built around managing emergencies, supported by experiences in both emergency and critical care nursing — he's been affiliated with Emory since 1994.  

Beneath the cool exterior is a man who simply specializes in thinking ahead —when staying in hotels, he's the guy who takes the time to count the number of doorways to the fire exits, just to have an escape plan.  

Shartar talks with Emory Report about public safety and the art of minimizing danger:  

It sounds as if your professional life has always involved emergencies. How were you drawn to this kind of work?

My background and interests are in emergency medicine and critical care. I was a paramedic for 13 years at Grady (Memorial Hospital), serving as evening watch supervisor for about nine of those years. Over time, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to do that forever. I decided my next transition would be to go to nursing school — out of the frying pan into the fire.  

After nursing school, I worked in the Surgical ICU at Grady and provided trauma care, then I came formally into the Emory system and worked in the cardiovascular surgical ICU with transplants and post-open-heart care. I also worked at CHOA (Children's Healthcare of Atlanta), specializing in critical care of cardiac patients. And I also continue to work in the emergency department.  

At one point, I went to work for the state as an administrator for the Department of Corrections overseeing the state's inmate health care system and providing tactical medical support for the state's tactical medical teams. In 2005, I came back to the Emory campus as the emergency department director, and came to this job in December 2010. So it's fair to say I've always had an interest in emergency response. It was something that piqued my interest, what I wanted to do.  

What is it about the work that you find compelling?  

I enjoy helping people, and there's clearly a need, because unfortunately — whether it's from natural or man-made disasters — humans tend to get themselves into trouble. Between my desire to help people and the fulfillment I get from either managing an isolated event or orchestrating a response to a larger event, I find it fulfilling.  

Your role is all about preparing and protecting. How do you do that with disasters that may seem well beyond our control?  

Clearly, we face hazards that — if you let them — could probably keep you up at night. You have to look at the likelihood of an event occurring. For instance, severe weather is probably the highest frequency event that we face. Some are less likely, but higher-consequence events — for example a train derailment or chemical release. Certainly all are events that we plan for.  

The point of emergency preparedness is to do what you can to mitigate the impact of what may occur. The more prepared you are, the more likely you are to be resilient. We can't stop a tornado. But we can make sure we have the plans and resources in place not only to respond, but to move through the recovery process, to try to get things back to normal as much as possible.  

How do you test the process? How do you know you're prepared?

Once a year, we'll do a full-scale exercise using the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program. First, we assess the hazards we face. Then you set objectives and select the response you want to test. You start with a workshop discussion — talking about policies, response plans — then move to a tabletop exercise, where a group of responders are presented with scenarios that allow them to talk through a response.  

We've had exercises around a mass casualty surge from a fire in a residence hall, pandemic flu, and an active shooter exercise. We've also conducted a tornado exercise at Oxford. The whole purpose is to identify gaps in your plan.  

Few people can know how they'll react to a real-time crisis. What do you advise?

When you hear 'first responder' people often think about public safety personnel. But the reality is that first responders are the survivors of an incident. You'll see bystanders providing help — those are also first responders. Being prepared and knowing what you can do to help someone, knowing how to stop bleeding, knowing hands-only CPR, knowing what to do in the event of a fire or tornado — whether here or at home — will allow you to be better prepared to deal with what comes next.  

As a community, how can Emory better prepare for a disaster?

Knowledge empowers people. If you think through what to do in advance, you'll be better prepared to take care of yourself and those around you until you can get help. 

We recommend our "Just in Time" guide for information about how to react to emergencies. We also recommend looking into some way to get weather alerts. At Emory, you can sign up to receive (text) alerts for dangerous winds and tornado warnings – we don't do severe thunderstorm warnings, we don't do tornado watches, so people need to be situationally aware of the weather. If there are problems, we'll use our emergency notification system to alert the campus population. Members of the Emory community should make sure that they are enrolled in Emory's emergency notification system. You can also follow us on Twitter @EMORY_CEPAR. 

Have you ever been caught in a catastrophic event?

I've certainly responded to many of them over the 36 years I've been doing this. That would be 'yes' as a responder, but personally, 'no.'  

Emergencies are stressful. How do you relax? 

I like to spend time with my family and try not to take work home … (grabs his smartphone, smiling) but I am always reachable.