Texas A&M University prepares MBAs for disaster

You’re traveling across country by train, when suddenly there’s a horrific screech. The train lurches and jerks violently before crashing into something and flipping off the tracks. The lights go out and you can hear the moans and cries of the wounded passengers around you. You try to help, but you hit your head during the accident and are too dizzy to stand.

“Don’t worry, I’m here to help,” you hear a nearby voice say. And who is your rescuer? A paramedic? A search and rescue worker? No, it’s an MBA, trained at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School.

It seems an unlikely scenario, but for students in the Mays MBA program, a crash course in what to do when everything goes wrong is a new part of the curriculum. The school recently partnered with Texas Task Force One for a day of hands-on training at Disaster City, a 52-acre facility in College Station, Texas, where rescue workers from around the world come to hone their skills.

Students participating in drill
Mays MBA students practiced crisis management skills with hands-on training at Disaster City.

The future business leaders developed crisis management skills by rescuing “victims” from a train wreck using specialized equipment and then coordinating external communications efforts. It was an intense experience, designed to force the students to think on their feet when the pressure is on.

“They had to decide what was most important and solve real problems creatively,” said Kelli Kilpatrick, director of the Mays MBA program. Kilpatrick says this kind of training will be highly valuable to the student’s in their future careers. “There is absolutely no doubt that they will experience crisis at some point in business,” she said. “It may not be a physical disaster, but it might be a financial disaster or a communications boondoggle. Having the ability to know how to react and to lead when the pressure is on is vitally important.”

Bob McKee, director of emergency response and rescue for the Texas Engineering Extension Service coordinated the MBAs activities. He agrees with Kilpatrick about the value of the program. “They may be exposed to some very difficult situations. We hope this better prepares them,” he said. “Disasters are managed by an incident command structure, very much like a business organization.”

When the MBAs arrived, they were presented with the emergency: two trains had collided, and there were victims trapped inside. They broke into teams, some acting as rescuers, others as communicators. Using high-tech video equipment, they mapped out the interior of the overturned train and communicated via radio with the rescue party about the location of victims and the obstacles in their path. They practiced rope rescue systems for moving heavy objects as well as “patient packaging”—prepping wounded for transport.

Almost as difficult as the physical rescue—which involved getting someone on a backboard around two very tight 90 degree angles in the dark—was setting up the complex base camp tent (without instructions) and then coordinating with victims, family members, and the media.

Students participating in drill
Students took part in simulated rescue efforts, as well as learning to manage external communications in a crisis situation.

Elliot Battles, a former Army captain from Dallas, was one of the students participating in the exercise. Through his military training, Battles says he’s done plenty of these kinds of leadership courses. “I was a little skeptical going into it, but it was a very worthwhile experience,” he said. “It was very realistic. They did a great job of simulating a crisis situation.”

“The situation became much more real when we were in tent headquarters and we’re trying to keep track of all our people who were spread around responding to different situations,” said another participant, Justin Johnson, from Murphy, Texas. “At that time, a man comes up stating that both his children are missing and are somewhere in the disaster area. He was freaking out wanting some answers, worrying about his kids. This immediately made the stress of the situation climb…If this was a real situation, I could imagine hundreds of other people acting the same way. We couldn’t focus purely on what we wanted to do–we had to learn to deal with lots of outside pressures, which could make it easy to lose focus on overall goals.”

Johnson said the experience was a challenging but valuable leadership exercise. “You have to be able to quickly learn what people’s strengths are and trust them to use them effectively,” he said.

Michael Wesson, associate professor of management at Mays also sees the benefit of the program, which he helped to create. “There simply is no substitute for putting people in out-of-the-box situations to see how they react and learn from the experience,” he said. “I think our program does a great job of seeking these kinds of opportunities for our students. This is an experience that will help to differentiate Mays MBA from other programs.”

This was the first year for this innovative program, which Kilpatrick says they hope to repeat each year, though this type of enrichment exercise has long been a part of the curriculum. “It’s experiential learning that focuses on their soft skill development,” she said. “I think it really complements the academic curriculum and builds core competencies that they might not get in the classroom.”

For more information, contact Kilpatrick at kkilpatrick@mays.tamu.edu.