Terrorist attacks, hurricane help her choose career

February 23, 2007|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

SMITHSBURG - It seems she's been preparing for the career for years, but it took two national emergencies and an internship to solidify her decision.

Seventeen-year-old Erika Jeter said after graduation she hopes to enroll at Virginia Commonwealth University and study homeland security and emergency management. The Smithsburg High School senior said that college has one of the only programs of the kind in the country.

"It's just so new," she said.

Her interest in the field increased, as it did nationally, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In seventh grade at the time, Erika said she began watching the news more.

The aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster brought the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the spotlight and gave Erika a chance to see how important emergency response could be.


"I saw the gaps and opportunities for improvement in emergency management," she said. "That opened the doors for a lot of opportunities in the field."

About a year ago, Erika became a junior member at Smithsburg Volunteer Fire Co., where her father was president for 11 years. She said she always has volunteered at the station, helping with fundraisers and breakfasts.

"I'm not cut out to be an active firefighter, but I still want to help," Erika said. "I think my strengths are in leadership."

Knowing she wants a career in emergency services at the state or federal level, she has taken advantage of every local opportunity she could find.

"It's very difficult to find experience, or a job, or anything related to emergency services," she said.

That included an internship with the Washington County Division of Fire & Emergency Services last summer. Her time there included working in the emergency operations center, which was set up during the serious flooding the area experienced in early June.

She helped organize the center to prepare for the flooding and stayed there until nearly midnight working with logistics for the disaster response locally.

"There's just all the information, everything that's going on in an emergency," Erika said.

She spent some of her time checking on available resources, including generators. She said the center was very busy during the flooding, with a lot of information coming in and going out.

"I know when I'm there, it's so important," she said. "There's a million things going on at once. It's complete chaos, but I'm helping people. It's definitely behind the scenes, but you need that leadership behind the scenes to make the other stuff work."

Erika said she has accumulated more than 200 community service hours for school, most of which are in emergency services activities. The hours spent interning with the Division of Fire & Emergency Services were especially important, she said, because it was that experience that made her realize how much she wanted a career in that field.

"I was thinking maybe I don't want to do this," she said. "Am I going to be good at it? But (the internship) really helped me decide."

She also has attended the Washington County Health Department's pandemic flu drill and received National Incident Management Systems and Citizens Emergency Response Team training.

If accepted by Virginia Commonwealth University, Erika said she could have the opportunity to intern at federal agencies, like the FBI, CIA or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She should know the university's decision in the next few weeks, she said.

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