In response to the demand for emergency response education, an Illinois two-year community college will offer an Associate Degree in Emergency Management starting in the spring semester.

Kankakee Community College's innovative program will aim to prepare students for professional careers in emergency management, including a broad range of topics within fire service, law enforcement and other government agencies.

"The recent devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita further demonstrate the importance of training a new generation of leaders to help protect the citizens of Illinois and our nation," Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said in a release.

According to Blagojevich, KCC will be on the forefront of training future leaders for crisis preparedness, emergency management and homeland protection.

"The idea behind [this program] is homeland security," KCC Technology Division Chair Anne Perry said. "[We are creating] a plan for our community in a disaster situation."

Kankakee officials designed this program based on a perceived need for a more focused area of study on matters of national security.

"It has become more and more apparent that we really lack [this kind of] education," KCC Program Director Mike Casagrande said. "This is such an evolving field — there are going to be a variety of different career fields within homeland security."

The program will include a broad range of topics within emergency management, such as emergency policies and planning, public awareness and community relations, and hazardous assessment and mitigation. It has been in development for several years, but has been given more attention given the onset of disasters in the past five years.

"As Sept. 11 came about, it really catalyzed the formation of this program," Kari Sargeant, Director of Marketing and Public Information, said. "It is something that our administrators [had] been looking at before."

Todd Stewart, program director for International and Homeland Security at the Ohio State University, expressed reservations about the plausibility of a "disasters" degree being available at a four-year university.

"Here at Ohio State, our focus is slightly different," Stewart said. "It is not clear to us that this is an academic body of knowledge. [Our program] is taking the approach of taking an established degree and creating a concentration or a major within an established degree program."

Casagrande said one of the major goals of the KCC program is to convert an old general foods plant into a training facility where students can experience simulated emergency scenarios. The kind of emergency training Kankakee is offering to students is unique among community colleges, he said, highlighting the "hands on experience they will be able to gain that they wouldn't anywhere else."

In addition to this facility, Casagrande sees the future of this program encompassing a broad range of academic levels.

"Ideally we will have a program that will be able to offer a path from vocational high school to a doctorate degree," he said.

Both Sargeant and Perry said the program has received significant attention from prospective students, many of whom are in law enforcement or fire service.

"We have had a lot of phone calls, a lot of interest." Perry said. "A mess of phone calls."