In today's world of emergency management, a four-year degree is a must, said Aaron Kenneston, emergency manager of Washoe County, Nev., though it's not necessarily critical the degree relate specifically to emergency management.
"The idea is to gain a body of knowledge on common core subjects, undergo the rigors and discipline of academic study, and learn perseverance," he said. "Certainly it is a bonus if you can attend an emergency management or homeland security degree program."
B. Wayne Blanchard, project manager of the Higher Education Project at the Emergency Management Institute, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md., agrees that it's important for emergency managers - or future emergency managers - to get a college education.
"Dealing with hazards, disasters and what you do about them is a very difficult task to perform," he said. "Having the skills one picks up in college puts one on the right track forward in dealing with administrators and policymakers, and the political context within which hazards, disasters and what you do about them are placed."
Also, Blanchard said, an education in emergency management means students start a job with a background understanding of the complexities surrounding hazards, disasters and emergency management.
When the Higher Education Project started in 1994, Blanchard said, most emergency managers didn't have a college degree in any subject.
"And most had only, at best, a passing acquaintance with the social science research literature on hazards, disasters and what to do about them."
The goal of the Higher Education Project, according to Blanchard, is to increase collegiate study of hazards, disasters and emergency management; enhance emergency management professionalism; support development of an emergency management academic discipline; make a long-term contribution to enhanced hazards footing; and support a long-term, greater collegiate role in emergency management and disaster reduction.
Since 1960, monetary losses from natural disasters in the United States have doubled or tripled per decade, wrote Harvey Ryland, president of the Institute for Business and Home Safety, in 1999.
"And the century's steady progress in reducing deaths and injuries due to natural disasters had begun to level off," he wrote. "Furthermore, there was concern that a single disaster - for example, a catastrophic East Coast hurricane or a repeat of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake - could kill thousands, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, disrupt the national economy, and exhaust the reserves of the insurance industry."
The background problem in the United States, Blanchard said, is that the country isn't on the right path as far as mitigating disasters. "Thus, it doesn't matter what kind of cadre you have working in and around emergency management. I'm aware of no one who thinks disaster losses will flatten out or go down, but I have heard a number of people who do hazard and disaster research give voice to their fears that [the] disaster loss curve is in fact going to steepen."
Our country would be in a better position, Blanchard said, if those in the emergency management field and in schools focus their studies on emergency management - which is a broad term.
"It could be disaster studies, emergency administration and planning - a wide range of titles I loosely call emergency management," he said. "But you put all those things together, and it does justify the leap of faith that the country would be on better footing in the future."
The more college students become aware of hazards and disasters and how to respond to them, and become acquainted with the social science research literature on these topics, the better, Blanchard said.
If only the findings from that research literature were put into practice, Blanchard said, because much - if
not most - of disaster loss could have been avoided had knowledge in hand been applied.
"But the fact is, most of the lessons learned, most of the social science - or certainly much of it - is not implemented," Blanchard said. "The lessons really aren't learned for very long. How long the lessons actually stay in one's mind depends on how traumatic the disaster is."
Many colleges and universities, nationally and internationally, are starting to offer certification programs, bachelor's degrees and even master's degrees in emergency management.
Boston University, Eastern Michigan University and California State University at Long Beach are just a few of the more than 100 schools offering such education programs. In addition, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) created its Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) Program to raise and maintain professional standards.
"It is an internationally recognized program that certifies achievements within the emergency management profession," according to the IAEM, which also states that CEM certification is a peer review process administered by IAEM, and is maintained in five-year cycles.
Internationally the Emergency Management Certificate from York University in Canada uses lectures, case studies and class discussions to help students develop an understanding of the Emergency Response Cycle, including hazard identification, risk analysis, risk evaluation and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Students also develop the ability to read, interpret, prepare and implement emergency plans, policies and procedures, and learn how to work as team members while providing effective leadership, according to the university.
"Emergency managers require strong analytical, communication and integrative skills, which help them establish a meaningful dialogue with experts in a wide range of fields and make sense of the complex information they provide," according to a statement from the university.
"My advice to aspiring emergency managers is to focus on gaining experience, join a professional organization and then become certified," Washoe County's Kenneston said. "Experience is crucial and can be gained through employment with a response agency, participating in mutual aid to a disaster site, or by volunteering with a citizen corps program or nongovernmental organization that provides disaster support."
It's very important, he said, that emergency management professionals possess a common experience base, such as the Incident Command System and the National Incident Management System.
Though important, education alone won't make a great emergency manager. In addition to education, it takes training and experience to make a professional 21st-century emergency manager, Blanchard said.
Education, he emphasized, must acquaint the student with social science literature. Once the student has graduated - though education continues over his or her lifetime - training comes next, Blanchard said. "There are so many details, procedures and protocols that aren't the province of education, but are the province of training, and are absolutely necessary."
Then there's the third arm - experience.
"It's sort of a truism," he said. When you've actually worked a disaster, it's like an epiphany, it opens your eyes, expands your field of vision. So experience, I think, is essential as well."
Still, Blanchard cautioned, experience isn't the be-all and end-all.
"In fact, I know people who've had lots of experience and lots of training, and are far from being what I would call a professional emergency manager who's on the path of helping their community become disaster-resistant and resilient."