Careers to Consider – Careers in Emergency Management

Imagine that relentless, torrential rains pummel your community, resulting in massive flooding that turns streets into canals and destroys homes, roads and bridges, grocery stores and pharmacies, schools, hospitals, and other essential services across a wide area. Thousands of people and families are displaced and homeless, having lost everything to a devastating natural disaster that renders water undrinkable and causes neighborhoods to go dark when the sun sets. Local fire, police, and hospital emergency departments are overwhelmed with more demands for time, manpower, and resources than exist to address every need. Nursing home residents are swiftly moved to higher ground, prison inmates are transferred to another facility, potable water is unavailable, and downed power lines pose life-threatening dangers that go beyond a community in the dark. This scenario actually requires little imagination because each year, natural, man made, biological, and technological disasters alter lives, the economic well-being, and the physical landscape somewhere across America.

Disasters have been recorded throughout time. However, it was not until the late-20th century that the field of emergency management emerged as a professional occupational discipline, requiring formal academic preparation and training. From the manmade Tylenol product-tampering crisis in 1982 to Category 5 Hurricane Andrew a decade later, the need for trained crisis managers escalated. Unquestionably, the historical benchmark that demanded an educated force of emergency managers was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 American lives were lost and symbols of American economic and military strength were destroyed. The public outcry for trained, well-equipped emergency managers quickly resonated across national media and public agendas at the community level. Only a few years later in 2005, the issues, challenges, and impacts of Hurricane Katrina again brought emergency management to the forefront, as the nation saw images of thousands of New Orleans’ citizens stranded in a flood-devastated city. More recently, the H1N1 pandemic, Boston Marathon bombing, Sandy Hook school shooting, winter snow blizzards and ice storms, and widespread forest fires reminded America that our nation’s safety and security will continue to be challenged by any number and combination of threats — those that can be predicted and others which cannot.

Many people think of emergency management in its traditional context, with a focus on first responders – the firefighters, police officers, 911 operators, and emergency medical personnel who arrive first on a disaster scene to rescue people from harm’s way. Students pursuing academic training in emergency management today, however, are trained in means and methods that go beyond these essential on-scene response efforts. Emergency managers focus on the “whole community,” and are trained to anticipate and plan for, respond to, recover from, and mitigate crises by building community resilience.

Emergency managers must be equipped with an extensive toolbox of knowledge, best practices, and applied skills. These range from how to recognize and anticipate hazards and vulnerabilities, effectively communicate to all stakeholders, and identify and merge a community’s social, economic, cultural, and physical assets to build resilience against future disasters’ impacts. Trained emergency managers understand the importance of developing and sustaining networks of people and resources to expand capacity. They recognize the need for public-private partnerships at a time when government disaster-related funding is shrinking. These community partners deliberately include wide-reaching and diverse organizations, such as first responders (fire, police, EMS); hospitals and healthcare organizations; public works departments and transportation providers; public officials; traditional and social media; non-profit and civic organizations (American Red Cross, United Way, Rotary); private businesses (grocery stores, debris haulers, pharmacies, telecommunications providers), faith-based organizations, volunteers, and others.

Emergency managers bring the skills and resources of their community partners to bear into a coordinated emergency management structure to address needs of the whole community in each phase of emergency management (preparation, response, recovery, and mitigation). This includes recognizing community mental and critical health needs; coordinating and providing basic life necessities (such as food, water, clothing, and shelter); and communicating crisis information, particularly to vulnerable populations (such as those with physical and cognitive limitations, language and cultural barriers, those who cannot self-evacuate, and those without access to mainstream messages). As a trusted community pillar, emergency managers offer life-protecting information (either directly, through the media, or via familiar community organizations) that prepares and calms people, and engenders cooperation when it is needed most.

Emergency management baccalaureate programs prepare students to be trusted leaders in their communities. Through a combination of theory, event simulation, and real-life practice, students are trained for careers in whole community emergency management and public safety. Curriculums are deliberately designed to equip students with a comprehensive understanding and hands-on application of skills across the emergency management spectrum. This includes training and education that enables them to analyze natural, manmade, biological, and technological hazards and vulnerabilities; understand ways to build community partnerships that expand resources and capacity; communicate risks and safety information, as well as the do’s and do not’s of crisis communications and psychological first aid; and recognize how local, state, and federal laws, regulations, policies, and procedures influence emergency management’s whole-community approach.

Graduates of emergency management degree programs can expect a wide variety of employment opportunities. This includes local, county, state, and federal emergency management and intelligence agencies; hospitals, healthcare facilities, and public health departments; school districts, colleges, and universities; military; private-sector consulting; major industries (manufacturing and production, infrastructure, transportation, telecommunications and technology); first response (emergency medical personnel, police, firefighters, and 911 dispatchers); volunteer management and disaster relief organizations; and beyond.

Of this we can be sure — communities will continue to be impacted by disasters and Americans will have the resolve to help each other when help is needed most. Emergency managers live by the credo that “all disasters are local,” suggesting that regardless of the true geographic magnitude of an event, preparation and help happen at the community level — one neighborhood and one citizen at a time.

Mr. David Bjorkman is a full-time instructor of emergency management at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Formerly a hospital emergency management coordinator and a law enforcement officer in both a major American city and a college community, he has had hands-on experience across the entire emergency management spectrum in both the public and private sectors. Ms. Roseann Cordelli is an adjunct instructor of emergency management at Penn College and has consulted in emergency management for natural, biological, and manmade disasters. She has worked in the fields of community/public relations, public administration, and crisis communications for more than 35 years.