Faculty of Education

Lessons from Fukushima

By: Cory Habermehl
Friday, April 17, 2015

Faculty of Education professor takes lead role in developing curriculum for emergency first-responders in Japan

On March 11, 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan. The quake unleashed a tsunami that slammed into the country, disabling infrastructure and destroying everything in its path. Just days later, Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced the worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl.

Emergency first-responders rushed directly into the heart of the Fukushima disaster. And while each had specialized training, they later identified that changes in their education could have enabled them to be even more effective during the disaster response.

To ensure the next generation of emergency responders is better equipped to handle any future catastrophes, Faculty of Education associate professor Kathryn Hibbert recently travelled to Japan to work in collaboration with hospitals, governments and physician educators to help make certain lessons learned at Fukushima will find their way into future classrooms.

Keeping the stories alive

Hibbert is a researcher at the Faculty of Education and specializes in curriculum development. She is also cross-appointed with Western’s department of medical imaging where she is a Centre researcher at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry's Centre for Education, Research and Innovation. She literally wrote the book on radiology education.

Because of this expertise and her unique appointments, she has been working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the body that oversees all nuclear activities world-wide – for the past eight years.

When Japanese nuclear officials and their colleagues at the IAEA were keen to document what they learned during the management of the Fukushima crisis, and incorporate it into a revised curriculum for first-responders, they called Hibbert.

“There was a lot of concern about not losing the lessons they’d learned, but these were scientists with no real experience documenting those type of learnings in a meaningful way, or integrating them into educational curriculum,” said Hibbert. “So that became my task.”

Officials sent Hibbert data from interviews they had conducted with emergency first responders so she could use the information in her curriculum.

“My goal was to keep the stories alive,” said Hibbert. “I conducted a narrative analysis of the interviews that had been done by the nuclear radiation specialists, and reorganized them and wrote them into narrative stories, which are far more memorable, and a terrific tool from which to learn.”

Hibbert’s stories focus on the emergency responders first-person accounts, and pay particular attention to specific things the individuals had highlighted as missing in their previous education and training.

In conjunction with the stories, she created a series of resources and activities as part of a fulsome curriculum, and in December, travelled to Japan to work with officials and medical professionals to help them integrate her work into their existing materials.

A unique curriculum

One of first things realized during disaster was that a huge communication problem existed among first-responders who had never been required to explain their specialized knowledge to the general public.

“Physicians were trained to talk to patients, but this was different,” said Hibbert. “They found themselves talking about radiation safety levels to frightened mothers, the elderly, kindergarten teachers who wanted to know if their kids could play at recess – it was something totally foreign to them.”

Amid growing anxiety, the public began turning on front-line experts.

“All this public anger and fear was directed at the responders - at these extremely courageous people who were doing their absolute best,” said Hibbert. “It was extremely taxing on them.”

She realized mental health was as big an issue as the radiation response itself. As such, she not only developed a curriculum that focuses on improved communications, but also has a significant mental health component as well.

The work continues

With her work well underway, but far from complete, Hibbert will be returning to Japan in late June, where she plans to follow up on the curriculum implementation and how it might be further expanded, including into the digital realm.

Hibbert says she is looking forward to connecting in person once again with the Japanese educators and medical professionals with whom she has been working. Their resolve to carry on and learn from what took place at Fukushima has been truly inspiring, she said.

“You would never find more committed people anywhere – they recognize they have learned some important lessons, which is why they are so adamant that what they learned not be lost,” she said. “I am incredibly humbled to have been asked to help with this endeavor and never in my life have I felt so honoured.”