Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, April 9, 2009

Paramedic applies management skills to research on flooding, highways

Erik Viel is no stranger to disaster. The public affairs student has more than five years of experience as a paramedic and ambulance dispatcher, aiding people in the midst of personal crisis.


After graduating in May 2010, Erik Viel became informatics manager for Milwaukee County's Emergency Medical Services in October 2010.

Now he is taking on floods and transportation issues. As a project assistant for the 2009-10 school year he is assisting the National Center for Freight, Infrastructure, Research and Education with a study on the resilience of major freight highway routes in the Midwest. In summer 2009 he worked for the state agency Wisconsin Emergency Management. "I didn't get a disaster, so instead I did research to update a report on Wisconsin's recovery from summer flooding."

That experience followed his project assistantship with nationally recognized disaster management scholar Donald Moynihan to help organize a conference on flooding in Wisconsin. Viel used his skills at coordinating disparate elements to help with logistics and to build the web site for the April 20 symposium, "From Sandbags to Sanity: Lessons from the Midwest Floods of 2008."

"We pulled together resources for county emergency managers and local floodplain managers," Viel says, "and made that information easily accessible to professionals in Wisconsin and elsewhere." The conference drew more than 130 representatives from local government, state agencies, engineering firms, academia, non-profits, public health and the Wisconsin Legislature. They heard from national experts who described how stronger leadership, more communication, better research, greater education and stiffer laws could help control flood damage and reduce loss of property and lives.

After the conference, Viel helped Moynihan to write a policy report based on the symposium's findings and recommendations; the report should be released in spring 2010.

His graduate research activities are a far cry from the trajectory of Viel's academic career after he graduated from Catholic Memorial in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 2001. Indeed, Viel's post-secondary education initially verged on disaster.

He went off to the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee "because that was just the kind of thing that you do after high-school. I wasn't invested in college and I didn't go to class very much," he says. "After I got kicked out, my mom told I had better figure out what to do, so I joined the Coast Guard in 2002."

He hoped to become an aviation survival technician, the person who jumps out of helicopters and fishes victims out of the water, but what proved to be a benign heart murmur discovered during boot camp led to a medical discharge. "By the time I demonstrated that the heart murmur was stable, I had already moved on in my career pursuits, and so I did not re-enlist," Viel says.

Instead, Viel applied his new sense of discipline to his education and completed paramedic and firefighter training at technical colleges in Kenosha, Waukesha and Madison. Then, while working as a paramedic, he went to the University of Wisconsin's two-year campus in Waukesha to work on his bachelor's degree. He transferred back to where he started, the UW's Milwaukee campus, and graduated in sociology in 2008.

Weekend and evening shifts as a paramedic in Lake Geneva and Milwaukee gave a human face to the problems he studied in sociology. "I worked with patients in urban and rural 911 jurisdictions," Viel says. "We encountered some wild situations, with volatile patients and their relatives in crisis. In the midst of those sometimes chaotic scenes, I found I really enjoyed coordinating medical rescue efforts and working with police and fire personnel."

That discovery led him to enroll in the La Follette School, where the program's flexibility is enabling him to pursue his interests in disaster and emergency management as part of earning a Master of Public Affairs degree while he works occasionally for Curtis Ambulance. He also is pursuing a certificate in transportation management and policy.

When Viel graduates in May 2010, he wants to apply the skills he has acquired during his time at La Follette at a federal or state emergency management agency.

Making tough decisions is part of being a paramedic, Viel says, such as having to do triage at a mass casualty scene. "Paramedics have to decide on the spot how to allocate resources, which patients to treat, the order to treat them, and when and where they should be transported," he says. "I'd like to do that on a larger scale."

—  updated October 6, 2010