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Walden Magazine // Jul 01, 2012

The Power of Prevention

Dr. Irwin Harrington ’11 shares how earning a PhD transformed him into a leader who helps shape the responsibilities of emergency responders.

Dr. Irwin Harrington ’11 recalls the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center more vividly than most. It was the first of 45 days he would spend at the site of the Twin Towers after being called to duty for 18-hour shifts as a member of both the U.S. Navy Reserve and the New York City Fire Department.

Yet the thoughts running through Harrington’s mind as he raced to Lower Manhattan were personal, not professional. His sister worked at the World Trade Center. “My immediate thought was whether my sister was alive. I also thought about doing whatever I could to help out. The adrenaline going through me motivated me,” says Harrington. “In times of emergency, you do whatever is needed. We came together to help each other.”

Only later would he learn that his sister had joined the legions of workers who walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety. Only later would he conclude that many people, especially firefighters, had died needlessly in the response to the tragedy.

Dr. Irwin Harrington with the New York skyline in the distance. 

"During 9/11, the communication and the on-scene management were poor,” Harrington says. “But there was no form of training that could have prepared responders for this event, even though standard operating procedures weren’t followed. People operated on gut instinct. The tragedy is that so many lives were lost.”

The public safety response in New York City was an eye-opener for Harrington. But it was the response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 that was his true wake-up call. He believes the catastrophic loss of life that he watched unfold in the news from New Orleans could have been prevented.

Public safety officials could have heeded the warning signs of flooding. Emergency responders could have gleaned lessons from Florida’s experiences with hurricanes of similar force a year earlier. Instead, the emergency escalated into a disaster. “There was poor management,” he says. “It was chaos.” 

To Harrington, the events in New York and Louisiana presented a clear lesson: People died because both they and the public safety professionals charged with protecting them were unprepared for the crises.

In this lesson, he found a personal mission: He would save lives by educating people about safety and preparation by making the transition from a first responder to a leader who positively influences those first responders. Harrington says, “Everyone has policies, but unless you put them into practice, people will be injured. With proactive training and preparation, a crisis can be effectively prevented or mitigated.”

His son provided additional motivation to act. “Having a child changed me,” says Harrington. “It made me more protective. Everything I do is for my son. I have to make the world better for him.”

A month after Hurricane Katrina, Harrington began his doctoral studies atWalden, focusing on public safety management and leadership. Only additional education, he believed, would give him the knowledge and confidence to achieve change beyond his own family and community. “I needed to enhance my ability to create positive social change in the realm of public safety. Now that I’ve earned my Ph.D., people listen,” Harrington says.

Since the age of 5, Harrington dreamed of becoming a firefighter. His interest was sparked when he watched “Emergency!,” a television show that featured firefighters who rushed into buildings to help people to safety. It was still his dream when he joined the U.S. Navy after high school and suppressed onboard fires as a damage control specialist. “As I got older, I needed to understand how to prevent fires,” Harrington says. “That’s what prompted my interest in college. I always felt there was more inside me.”

Harrington left active military duty and returned to New York to study fire science. Although he struggled with his coursework, he realized his goals were achievable. “The Navy gave me an understanding of discipline. No matter how hard it gets, no matter what the obstacles are, never give up,” Harrington explains. “That’s what I live by. I never quit. That’s what has allowed me to accomplish my goals.”

Harrington joined the New York City Fire Department in 1997 and began a 10-year career with the organization as a firefighter, industrial health and safety analyst, and fire protection code enforcer.

Realizing he lacked the skills of a manager, he pursued two master’s degrees: one in public administration and one in urban studies. “I wanted to understand why fires start and how to prevent them,” Harrington says. “I also wanted to be a manager to change policies and procedures. To do that, I needed to understand why the government operates the way it does.”

When Hurricane Katrina swept through, he realized it was time to pursue his doctorate. “Every step you take prepares you if you believe in yourself and have the discipline,” Harrington says. “It’s not where you begin that matters, it’s where you end.”

The Journey to Achieve
Supported by his discipline, faith, and family, Harrington spent nearly six years working toward his PhD in Public Policy and Administration. He faced challenges from the start: Just before he was to begin classes in September 2005, he was ordered overseas by the Navy. For the first year of his PhD program, Harrington was in Iraq. After a year at home, he was deployed for another year. “I knew it was going to be challenging, but I’m a dedicated person. I knew what I wanted,” Harrington says. “The biggest challenge was finding a free computer.”

Even thousands of miles away from home, he found a support system for his studies—a connection with his midshipmen. “Two of my classmates were deployed with me,” Harrington explains “That was the biggest help. We were able to share a lot of information with each other.”

At work on military bases in Kuwait and Iraq, dressed in Kevlar and battle gear, Harrington and one of his colleagues discussed their dissertations—in the midst of receiving, assessing, and cleaning tanks and other heavy artillery in the dry desert haze. “I was fortunate enough to work closely with someone else who was working on his PhD in that stressful environment.”

Harrington’s dissertation focused on understanding the effects of training on emergency response outcomes. Through his in-depth qualitative research study involving the fire and emergency medical service departments in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, Harrington learned that even experienced public safety professionals in senior positions were insufficiently prepared to provide the proactive leadership needed to prevent and manage crises.

Ultimately, in his  dissertation, titled Improving Public Safety Emergency Response Efficiency Amid Uncertainty Through Crisis Leadership Training, Harrington concluded that the principles of crisis leadership can improve the efficiency of public safety managers. Their goals should be to overcome the challenges they face not only by identifying those challenges, but also by immediately setting out to improve the efficiency of their entire team’s responses before a critical incident occurs.

The faculty members who served on his dissertation committee inspired Harrington to exceed even their expectations. “They challenged me to do more and to do better, to think about what might occur in an emergency,” Harrington says. “They encouraged me to not just write a dissertation, but to write one worthy of being read.”

For Harrington, earning a PhD is both a professional accomplishment and a legacy for his son. “My PhD tells my son that he doesn’t have to worry about being a young African-American boy growing up in urban America—he can do anything,” he explains. “If his father overcame obstacles, he can do it, too.”

With his degree in hand, Harrington says, “Now, I have all the knowledge I need to be an agent of change.”

Preparation Saves Lives
Harrington is putting his knowledge into action, spreading the message that effective preparation and crisis leadership save lives. He believes his doctoral degree has opened new opportunities to promote change and serve others.

As an editorial board member of the journal Inside Homeland Security, he writes articles on emergency preparedness and decision making during crises. In January, he became an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York where he teaches adults about fire and life safety, including safety and response during emergencies.

In the same month, he left the contract position he’d held since 2007 as an assistant fire marshal with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., to become a safety specialist with the Transportation Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Now working in New York, he provides leadership training for newly promoted staff and ensures screening areas are safe and free of hazards.

Even more notably, he was confirmed this spring by the U.S. Senate to serve as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve. In his new role, he will review reports that analyze threats to national security and react as needed. “My PhD helped me earn this position,” Harrington says. “It requires a qualitative analysis that I learned to do while earning my PhD.”

He also hopes to use his commission to further his cause of helping others make their environments safer places to live and work. “I want to be in a position to effect change and affect more people,” Harrington says. “I’m teaching the principles I learned while writing my dissertation. I’m putting everything I’ve learned into practice.”

Safety Lessons for Everyone

Dr. Irwin Harrington’s training, writing, and teaching offer an important reminder: People are subject to hazards wherever they live. Even before an emergency occurs, everyone in a community—not just public safety officials—needs to know what to do. Harrington offers a few points of advice:

BECOME FAMILIAR WITH YOUR LOCAL HOSPITAL. Write down and post its location, and learn about its emergency room and triage plan.

CREATE AN EMERGENCY SUPPLY KIT. Include food, water, and other items that would be essential if help is delayed.

DEVELOP A HOME EVACUATION PLAN. Set a meeting place in case a disaster occurs when family members are apart.

“We all have to change how we approach emergencies and crises,” Harrington says. “I believe it is every American’s responsibility to do whatever he can to protect family and friends.” — A.D.