Being Prepared

Carl Cowan joins HMS to ensure safety and build resilience

Carl Cowan

At Harvard Medical School, a complex institution with unique safety and security challenges, emergency preparedness is a full-time job.

Robert Dickson, HMS director of campus services, orchestrates the efforts of a range of teams, from Dining Services and the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center, to Parking and Commuter Services and security and campus safety. He also manages the coordination of the HMS Local Emergency Management Team and maintains a strong relationship with the Harvard University Police Department 

The goal is to ensure a comprehensive and proactive approach to preparing for and mitigating any safety-related risks or hazards faced by the School. But that’s only one part of Dickson’s responsibilities. 

To ensure an even greater focus on campus safety, Carl Cowan has joined HMS to concentrate on emergency management operations.

From the Yard to the Quad

After two years as the emergency management program manager for central administration at Harvard University, and with 15 years of experience in emergency communications and response and incident management, Cowan joined HMS in August as the School’s first assistant director of emergency management.

He will manage all facets of the emergency management program for HMS and HSDM, including the development of School-wide departmental plans and procedures, business continuity planning, coordination of robust training opportunities and assisting in the oversight of Campus Security and Environmental Health and Safety.

“Carl will be taking a community-oriented, bottom-up approach to expand and promote our existing emergency management program with the goal of increasing the School’s resiliency to the ever-changing risk landscape,” Dickson said.

“HMS is a safe campus in a safe city,” added Dickson.  “We have strong safety and security programs in place, but with the increasing frequency of severe weather events, the sensitive nature of the research conducted here, and the wide range of people who intersect on and around our campus daily, the School warrants a dedicated person with specialized emergency management experience to lead our preparedness efforts, someone who will work closely with our community so that every person and department knows what to do in the event of an emergency.”

MyHMS sat down with Cowan to discuss his new role and plans for strengthening emergency preparedness within the HMS and HSDM communities.


What was your path to HMS?

I studied information technology as an undergraduate at Syracuse University. Living in New York around the time of 9/11, I had plenty of exposure to public safety agencies. My father is a physician so I've been around health care delivery my whole life. I’ve always been interested in public service and emergency response.

I graduated, went home to D.C. briefly to work in IT, then returned to Syracuse to serve as a communication supervisor and second-in-command for its student E.M.S. program. The job was a great opportunity to pivot from IT into emergency services. I guess it all started there.

There were a few career moves after Syracuse: I was a street paramedic and officer at my volunteer fire and rescue department.

I spent three and a half years as a supervisor and operations lead in the Boston area at Global Rescue, a private international security and medevac company. While at Global Rescue, I obtained a master’s in health care emergency management from Boston University School of Medicine.

I’ve been working for central administration at Harvard for the past two years, supporting the graduate schools’ emergency planning, public outreach initiatives and incident management, as well as coordinating with local, state and federal emergency management and response partners and implementing University-wide readiness training and exercise activities.

What excites you about this opportunity at HMS and HSDM?

For [Harvard] central administration, I’ve worked on disaster preparedness and response activities across many schools. I am excited to be able to do a deep dive working within one program. I think that we—the administration and community —can work together to create a safer campus environment for everybody. It's exciting.

I’ve worked side-by-side with the facilities and security staff of HMS and this School’s commitment to public safety is inspiring—really a model for excellent service delivery at Harvard University.

And this is an opportunity to align so many of my personal passions in support of the day-to-day operations of a medical education institution such as HMS. I just feel at home here.

Not every institution has a position dedicated to emergency preparedness. Is this a sign of the times?

HMS is forward-thinking. The leadership recognizes the need for a staff emergency manager whose sole job it is to navigate the School’s unique preparedness and resiliency issues: where it's situated within the city, the density of laboratories within a small footprint, all with specific compliance and safety concerns, the intersectional nature of the range of people on campus daily, and the long-term security challenges for Boston and the country.

I would not be surprised if other academic hubs begin to explore their own directors of preparedness. It’s become a modern-day necessity.

What does a community-based, bottom-up approach to mitigating risks and hazards mean to you?

We're only as prepared as the least-prepared person.

It’s important for members of the community to know they can reach out to me or this office anytime about any relevant public safety concern or preparedness.

I will be focused on engaging with individuals and departments to spread awareness about our office’s resources; to provide actionable information and reliable resources for public safety and preparedness; and to expand upon our trainings—like Stop the Bleed, CPR, first aid and You Are the Help Until Help Arrives—so everyone can feel, and be prepared, both at home and in the workplace.

Also, given the very international scope of the medical school, there's an opportunity to work with domestic students who research abroad and international students who've come here to study. What does preparedness look like for that community? Are there gaps or needs that haven't been addressed? Do they know where to turn for support? That will be a wonderful area for engagement over the next few years.

What are some of the items a person or department should take into consideration for preparedness?

A clear communications plan for the family and office: If something happens, who will you inform that you’re safe, or not safe? Who will they inform? Do you have in place a check-in location and time period?

Then there’s business continuity. There are lots of ways that we can create alternate avenues for people to either remain productive or safe that start right at home or with the individual. Do you have a plan for a loss of power that lasts multiple days? Do you have multiple days’ supply of food and water at home? Do you keep your vehicle gassed-up and serviced regularly if that's how you get to work? If you commute, are you able to work from home in the event that your workplace is offline or the transportation infrastructure has been impacted?

What do you do to take a break from crisis and emergency and worst-case scenarios?

I am an avid hiker and love to camp. I read as much as I am able. I'm a big fan of nonfiction and history, but most of my reading time goes to safety-related topics. I also spend a lot of time working on my truck. I'm a secret car guy. And a little bit of TV. Netflix and Hulu often take me to bed at night. So, I do what I can.


Harvard Medical School Resources for Emergency Preparedness

Security and Emergency Preparedness

MessageMe Emergency Notification System

Inclement Weather Policies and Information

Information Security at HMS


Other Harvard University Resources

Harvard University Police Department

Global Support Services