Managing Crisis

Emergency Managers Must Be Educated, Not Just Trained

Technical competence alone is not enough in this complex age

by Lucien G. Canton / May 1, 2013

The word "professional" is often misused to refer to someone is good at their job, even when that job is a technical trade (e.g a professional plumber). Now I certainly agree than someone can act "professionally" no matter what their calling. However, there are qualitative differences between a trade and a profession and if emergency management is ever to be fully recognized as a profession we need to keep this in mind.

The three characteristics that are usually associated with a profession are:

  • A code of ethics
  • A certification program
  • A specialized body of knowledge

The International Association of Emergency Managers offers both a code of ethics and the Certified Emergency Manager certification.  Neither are perfect but they are good starts. The question that still hasn't been settled is, "what is the specialized body of knowledge that defines emergency management?"

To be sure, there is a body of technical knowledge that should be mastered by entry level emergency managers. These are the tasks we typical associate with the job, such as the ability to develop an emergency plan or conduct an exercise. There is also a considerable body of technical knowledge to absorb such as familiarity with the Stafford Act and Federal planning guidance. But these task are technical in nature; they address the "how" but not the "why".

Being a competent technician was sufficient in the past when the scope of emergency management was largely limited to response-oriented planning. However, I suggest that the true specialized body of knowledge for the modern emergency manager is the considerable social science research into disasters. Studying disaster research answers the question of "why?"

As we expand our role to truly address all hazards and phase of emergency management, we are dealing more and more with complex issues and concepts. The concept of social vulnerability, for example, that drives much of our planning is intricate, constantly evolving, and does not lend itself easily to simplistic solutions. While a technician can perform a rudimentary hazard analysis, risk is a complicated concept that, like vulnerability, relies on many interacting factors. To be truly effective, emergency managers need a solid education in the theoretical basis of our profession in addition to technical competence.

There is a second plus to this increased demand for education. To make progress in mitigation and recovery, emergency managers need to move outside their comfort zone of response-oriented tasks and work new actors and processes. We need to be seen as equals and trusted advisers. This is a role that is seldom accorded to technicians.

If we are ever to be thought of as a profession we need to accept that education will be as important to our future leaders as technical competence. Emergency managers of the future will need to be able to think in broad and strategic terms and interact as peers with executives from outside the response community. They will need to know more than just how to get something done - they must be able to articulate why something must be done and why it is important. And for that, they will need an education in addition to technical training.


FEMA has decided to cancel the Higher-Education Symposium at the Emergency Management Institute in favor of an online series of discussions. The Symposium brings together educators, researchers and practitioners annually to address the education issues I discussed above. I urge you to read my colleague Valerie Lucus-McEwen's recent blog on this issue for some background information and then let FEMA know if you disagree with this decision.