Disaster Zone

Jobs: Walk-on Careers in Emergency Management

Possible, yes — Likely? Not so much.

by Eric Holdeman / November 19, 2018

I don't see many television ads anymore since I have a DVR/Tivo. But, I caught an ad just yesterday from Google about finding jobs suited for military personnel transitioning out of active duty. What grabbed my attention was one of the jobs that popped up in the video was Emergency Management Director.  I don't want to say that this is false advertising, but the reality is that there are a bunch of people vying for these types of jobs in today's world. When I transitioned out of the Army as an infantry officer I felt lucky to get a position in state emergency management. Note, I had previously applied for the King County Emergency Management Director's position — and never got an interview. Later, that is a position I held for 11 years, after I had gained five years of experience at state emergency management. 

There were some contributing factors to me getting the state position. The job classification and state emergency management department was in "Community Development." I had military installation experience (Community!) and I had also worked closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for four years doing joint planning. They also wanted someone experienced with disaster exercises — thus I was able to sell my skills and experience to make the transition. That was 27 years ago! Much water has gone over the dam since then.

Can lightning strike again for you? Possibly. The Deputy Washington State Emergency Management Director transitioned straight out of the Army as a Military Police Officer — who was involved with emergency management at the installation level during his military service. Then there is the current Deputy FEMA Administrator, Peter Gaynor. A United States Marine officer, he was encouraged to apply for the Providence Emergency Management Director's position, got it and then went on to be the Rhode Island State Emergency Management Director. The rest is history.

I dug up a Disaster Zone column that I had written for Emergency Management magazine back in 2009. I believe it remains true today. It applies to the military, people transitioning from other careers and the new graduates coming into the profession. 

Emergency Management Jobs

The economic recession has caused people to lose their jobs and look for other employment, searching for new career opportunities. Over the years I’ve found that many people stumble across emergency management as a profession that seems interesting, one that is focused on helping people and exciting as portrayed in the movies and on television.

First, let’s dispel the television and movie spin that they put on emergency management as a job. I recall Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Volcano, as the Los Angeles emergency management director out on the street using a jackhammer to create a channel for a lava flow. Then there was a made-for-TV disaster movie that had the FEMA director being lowered into a deep hole and setting off an atomic bomb to stop a series of earthquakes from happening. While there might have been times that some of us would have liked to lower the then FEMA director into just such a hole, these are activities are so far-fetched as to call them fantasy.

The reality is that the day-to-day existence for an emergency manager is a seemingly endless series of meetings each day, an inbox full of emails and then no time to “get work done.” Like most jobs, emergency management is about planning and coordinating. You deal much more with people than you do numbers or widgets. When people ask me what I did as a local emergency management director, I tell them, “I tried to get people and organizations to work with one another.” If you think that is easy in the multi-discipline, inter-jurisdictional environment we call the United States of America — I’ve got a lesson or two for you in dealing with people and their personal priorities.

In actuality the majority of emergency management jobs are “additional duties” that are assigned to fire, law enforcement, public works and other administrative personnel. Most counties and cities are small and understaffed. So there isn’t a full-time emergency manager position. And, if there is one, it is “one” person who performs all the duties of disaster preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. There isn’t enough time to do everything that laws and regulations might call for in each of these areas so they do the best they can with inadequate resources. It is getting more and more exciting by the moment, isn’t it!

You will only find “larger” emergency management programs at the state level and in the larger counties and cities. The size of these will vary greatly. States might have 500-plus staff (California) down to a few dozen in the more rural states in our nation. It’s here in these settings that you might find staff who are focused on only one aspect of emergency management. You might be dealing with homeland security grant funding, responsible for a public education program, designing and conducting disaster exercises and the like. Then, when there is a disaster and you need to activate the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), everyone pitches in to work 24/7 shifts, weekends and holidays included. I always figured that the Thanksgiving holiday is a disaster magnet for flood events in Washington state.

Who has and still continues to fill the majority of the emergency management positions that do exist? The traditional feeder sources for emergency managers has been the military, fire and law enforcement professionals who are completing one career, sometimes retiring, and then moving into emergency management. It is also not unusual that a very active volunteer in emergency management in smaller jurisdictions is sometimes tapped to fill a permanent position because of their known passion for emergency management and disaster preparedness.

Emergency management is a relatively young profession, being only about 60 years old, springing from the civil defense system of the 1950s and changing over time from only being concerned with nuclear attack to becoming what we call today an all-hazards discipline. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, dramatically shifted the preparedness efforts toward terrorism, almost doing away with an all-hazards approach due to this emphasis on a single hazard. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina’s impact revealed the need to have a more balanced approach to preparing our nation for disasters.

What 9/11 did do long term was build across the nation an educational backbone of higher learning focused on preparing emergency managers. There are now over 150 colleges and universities offering degrees in emergency management and homeland security. Back when I started in the business in 1991 there was only one BA program in the nation. Now every state in the union has some form of higher education emergency management program, and there are many online courses to choose from which promotes distance learning.

This educational machine is producing an entirely new crop of professionals entering the emergency management profession, young college graduates and other mid-career professionals pursuing higher level degrees in emergency management. They matriculate having a broad background in emergency management, perhaps some practical experience from an internship, and the enthusiasm and idealism that comes with youth.

For the average Joe or Jane on the street, it means that as an end result you can’t say, “Gee that looks like an interesting career, I’ll go work there.” To do so, you must have first paid your dues by obtaining an education or training in the field of emergency management — or come out of a related discipline that brings with it practical experience and a work history that is proof of your capabilities.

“Walk-on” careers in emergency management might still happen — but they are the type of stories best suited for the movie script rather than the real world.