When she isn’t responding to natural or manmade disasters, alumna Ashley McConnell (EHS MPH ‘09) is working to prevent them as Critical Infrastructure Planner for the New Orleans Urban Area Security Initiative.
Since 2003, the program has received over $30 million in federal grant funding to train and equip first responders and build an interoperable communications system to protect the New Orleans region, including Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes.
Through internships in various offices at City Hall, McConnell learned as a public health student that important work needed to be done at the local government level. “Without those opportunities, I wouldn’t have the job I have now, because I wouldn’t have made connections and I wouldn’t have had that experience,” she says. McConnell also credits her education in disaster management and mentorship under Tulane professors Maureen Lichtveld and LuAnn White for providing her a unique public health perspective for emergency preparedness.
When she took the position with the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, she knew she would be getting valuable field experience in a city she calls the “Mecca of excitement.”
“Whether it’s a parade, a dignitary coming to town, Super Bowl, Sugar Bowl, there’s always something to keep us on our toes. We’re not always in activation, but we do our best to protect the systems that are really critical,” says McConnell.
She spends most of her time out of the office, building relationships with businesses in the private sectors, gathering information and resources on their security plans, and offering training regarding threat/risk assessment, weapons of mass destruction and other matters of defense.
“It’s about getting people together from important parts of our city’s critical infrastructure so that we’re constantly working together. God forbid, if there’s a terrorist attack or a hurricane — something we deal with the threat of every summer — it’s really important to make sure that our businesses are able to run and the city isn’t going to be crippled,” she says.
McConnell also serves as manager of the buffer zone grant, money the department dedicates to protecting certain sites from cyber attacks or defending the actual perimeter of a facility from terrorist offenses.
“When I see how badly a facility may need funding and what I’m doing to help improve their security, it’s definitely the most rewarding part of my job,” she says.
— Laura Horne