Boots on the ground: WCC as a stepping-stone to disaster management career

A decade ago, Nina Rubenstein was swinging a pick-mattock on a Washington Conservation Corps restoration crew. Today she serves as the emergency manager for Providence St. Joseph Health’s Oregon region. It all started with saying “yes” to some exciting — and challenging — opportunities as an AmeriCorps member.

Nina grew up in the world of land conservation. Her father’s experience in the legal arena exposed her to the environmental field, and Nina joined our WCC in 2009 to gain hands-on experience. But she was further enticed by a new angle: the prospect of disaster response deployments.

Nina Rubenstein stands leaning against a split-rail fence wearing a dark blue WCC t-shirt.
Nina served on a restoration crew during her WCC AmeriCorps member days. Photo contributed by Nina Rubenstein.
During her first year as a WCC AmeriCorps member, Nina deployed to Mississippi to assist communities after devastating tornadoes. The deployment call arrived just before a major stand-up comedy show she was set to open, in front of an audience that included Bill Gates. “I had five minutes to decide whether to deploy, and I weighed what I would have to miss back home,” she said. “I decided to pass up the show, and disaster response turned out to be a calling. That’s pretty cool.”

A formative first — and second — deployment

She removed debris from land where homes had once stood, and led weekly safety meetings. Survivors who owned a crawfish business hosted a full crawfish boil for members at the camp where members were staying during deployment.

“I remember it being my first immersive experience in the South,” she said. Its lasting impact made her want to continue serving on disaster responses. “I decided I would not only do a second year in the WCC, but I would deploy again at any opportunity,” she said.

That opportunity arose when 360 confirmed tornadoes tore across the Southern, Midwestern, and Northeastern regions of the United States in just three days. Nina and WCC’s disaster response teams arrived in northern Alabama a month later, charged with managing a volunteer resource center.

The disaster response teams also needed a logistics coordinator. Already serving as an assistant supervisor and ready for more responsibility, Nina jumped at the chance. Leading the administrative and logistical side of the deployment meant making many phone calls to match field projects with the skill level of the volunteers.

“It was really gratifying to spend time on the phone with people who felt like they had been forgotten,” she said.

Disaster response in a new setting: a classroom

The second deployment to Alabama helped solidify her calling to disaster response. “I saw that the logistical side of things could be a much broader path, and I realized ‘I want to know what path that is,’” she said.

After returning from Alabama, Nina researched options for finishing her undergraduate degree and landed on the Homeland Security Studies program at Tulane University in New Orleans. A few months later, she finished her second service term in the WCC and headed off to Tulane University.

Split photo: Nina Rubenstein holds walkie talkies on the left, and flexes her muscle on the right. She is wearing "Incident Commander" vest.

Nina poses at Department of Homeland Security's Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala. She has visited the training facility for healthcare emergency management twice for different courses. Photo contributed by Nina Rubenstein.

After a deep dive into emergency management curriculum — including an in-depth study of the effects of Hurricane Katrina — Nina moved back to the West Coast and secured an emergency management coordinator position with PeaceHealth, a hospital system based in Vancouver, Wash.

She put her experience and new degree to use, building an emergency management program for the two hospitals in Southwest Washington. A year and a half later, a colleague from the hospital emergency management field contacted her about a management position at Providence Health & Services in Portland. She hopped on the phone to learn more, and a month later, started her emergency manager position.

Expanding her skills, with a nod to AmeriCorps service

Nina’s team at Providence St. Joseph Health is in charge of emergency management plans for six hospitals and more than 100 clinics and acute care centers. Typical projects include developing full-scale exercises to demonstrate preparedness, including staff training, and building a disaster equipment cache for the region she serves.
She also develops protocols regarding how hospitals manage medical and trauma surge capacity — when patients occupy all beds and services might need to be scaled up to meet the demand. To prepare for mass casualty incidents, Nina designs and leads exercises like “15 ‘till 50,” where the hospital has 15 minutes to prepare to receive 50 incoming patients.

Looking back, the days of waking up at 6 a.m. to meet her WCC restoration crew in Renton provided pivotal experience along her vocational journey.

“In school, and more so now, I found that I knew what I was talking about because I had done it. Applying for jobs and school, I could say I had two years’ work experience in this field, in a supervisory role,” she said. “That was absolutely a leg up in the job market.”

Fast forward to 2019: WCC deploys to Iowa

On July 8, 2019, 10 WCC AmeriCorps members and three crew supervisors deployed to Fremont and Mills Counties in Iowa, to support communities after devastating flooding in spring 2019. Members are spending the month assisting homeowners and operating a disaster response center. Keeping safety a top priority in summer heat, teams are taking turns hydrating and resting, and donning protective Tyvek suits to conduct mold suppression and remove water-damaged material from affected homes.
 Five of our WCC crews are designated disaster response crews, though any crew has the potential to deploy. Our Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) provides disaster services in Washington and beyond, assisting communities after fires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, oil spills, and more.
Two WCC AmeriCorps members are wearing navy shirts and hold blackberry canes, another, in the middle wears a grey shirt and holds a Pulaski.
WCC AmeriCorps members remove invasive species at Camp Murray. Photo by Taylor Belisle.

Apply to WCC today

Do you want to gain hands-on environmental experience, build your résumé, and make a difference in your community? WCC is currently recruiting for the 2019-2020 AmeriCorps service year! Learn more and apply online: