Redefining the Emergency Manager: A Proposal for Change

The lack of a structured alignment and cross-pollination between the worlds of academia and the practitioner has stalled the development of the next generation of emergency management leaders.

by Daniel Stevens, Training Coordinator, FEMA Response Directorate / February 21, 2013

The opinions and ideas contained herein are those solely of the author and not necessarily reflective in any official capacity those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the United States government.

Long before the current benchmark events of Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and now Hurricane Sandy, the field of emergency management has progressively evolved over many generations of first responders, receivers and managers. Whether this has been the result of new policy and doctrine, adopting lessons learned and best practices, or simply adapting to a more all-hazards and capability-based environment, I think there is a general consensus that these changes have greatly benefited the field of emergency management and more importantly, the communities and disaster survivors they serve. The field has become significantly more proactive and integrated with response and recovery efforts, preparedness initiatives such as planning and training have gradually accepted the importance of cross-sector coordination, and leaders at all levels of government and across the whole community are now discussing risk-based prioritization of resources and the benefits derived from mitigating risks.

However, unlike most other professions, emergency managers have relied on an inconsistent approach to training and education, where unconventional career paths are often the norm. If you can imagine the implications this would have on other well defined professions like doctors, lawyers, engineers or pilots, then think of the positive impacts a consistent approach could have on emergency management training and education programs. While there have been extensive efforts to expand emergency management degree programs, they often focus on public policy or public administration or are off-sets from a traditional MBA. Regardless of the quality or consistency of these programs, the field as a whole lacks a structured framework that adequately prepares individuals to be effective emergency managers in the field. Despite the research and advances from several institutions on crisis leadership and meta-leadership, the lack of a structured alignment and cross-pollination between the worlds of academia and the practitioner has greatly stalled the development of the next generation of emergency management leaders. The current development system for emergency managers is akin to a student completing medical school and becoming a surgeon without doing a residency. We have focused too heavily on knowledge development, while neglecting the importance of the hands-on skills and abilities acquired through real-life experience, mentor and internships, and simulations. While it’s important to acknowledge there are different learning styles, in emergency management there are critical and necessary aspects that are much better suited to learn by doing as opposed to learning by reading. Conversely, individuals who develop their entire career in the field often have limited exposure to newly developed methodology based on sound research and analysis. There is a dire need to better integrate the whole community of emergency management in order to truly professionalize the field.

The Emergency Management Institute (EMI), under the direction of FEMA’s Protection and National Preparedness Directorate has recently made enormous strides in this arena by involving the whole community to include NEMA, the private sector and numerous others. The current direction to develop a National Training and Education System has caught the attention and interest of many stakeholders across all levels of government. Similarly, FEMA’s Response Directorate has allocated a lot of resources to focus on the development of its own disaster workforce, to include the revamped FEMA Reservist Program and the Incident Management Assistance Teams. The recent implementation of the FEMA Qualification System (FQS) and supporting doctrine established a performance-based framework to consistently apply standards toward the certification of the agency’s workforce. The FQS and supporting doctrine were largely modeled after the National Wildland Fire Qualification System, and represents a huge step in defining how the field of emergency management utilizes the Incident Command System at the federal level of resource support and coordination. Several other federal and state agencies are already considering the feasibility of adopting FQS as their own standard for an emergency management credentialing program.

These initiatives and programs from academia, FEMA and the countless other stakeholders involved have all greatly contributed toward this gradual evolution and progress for the field of emergency management and specifically training and education. Similarly, new doctrine such as FEMA’s capstone: Publication 1 and the frameworks resulting from Presidential Policy Directive 8 have greatly contributed to further defining the importance and requirements to successfully integrate and execute all phases of emergency management: preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. Although, it’s important to acknowledge that these initiatives may take several years of their own evolution and adaptation before being fully implemented and accepted by the field.

With so many new and emerging trends in the field of emergency management, and in a field that is evolving at a greater pace due to social media and advances in new technologies, the importance to re-focus on standardization (since the implementation of NIMS and ICS) is ever more critical today than in years past. So what exactly needs to be standardized? What have we missed in the field of emergency management if there are numerous new programs in academia, new policy and doctrine, and new systems for credentialing? It is the missing link across all these initiatives that still needs to be consistently understood and applied; the emergency manager. Without an agreed upon specification of the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities needed for such individuals to be successful, academia will continue to focus on the field of emergency management as opposed to the practitioner, the emergency manager. So much of the new policy and doctrine focuses on the critical components of preparedness, protection, response, recovery and mitigation, but rarely touches on the importance of the individual(s) responsible for executing those programs.

The FEMA Qualification System takes a step in the right direction by defining the core competencies, behaviors and tasks for individual positions. However, there still needs to be a core, cross-cutting set of competencies applied across the entire field to accurately reflect and define the emergency manager. In 2007, the International Association of Emergency Managers, in coordination with Dr. Wayne Blanchard from EMI, and several other stakeholders wrote and published the Principles of Emergency Management (PDF). The document provides a clear definition, vision and mission and then outlines eight principles. For its time, this was a very progressive, well researched and thought out document, but it still does not accurately make the distinction between the field of emergency management and the individuals in the role of emergency manager. The glossary of NIMS provides the following definition that also lacks an accurate portrayal of the specific knowledge, skills and abilities of an emergency manager:

“Emergency Manager: The person who has the day-to-day responsibility for emergency management programs and activities. The role is one of coordinating all aspects of a jurisdiction's mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery capabilities.” (FEMA, 2008)

Several other documents such as the National Response Framework and the National Disaster Recovery Framework provide core capabilities or key principles, but similar to the current doctrine, they frequently cross between the field of emergency management and the definition of the role of the emergency manager as a practitioner. In order for training curricula to effectively prepare individuals to serve in the field, one must first accurately and definitively outline what an emergency manager is and must do in order to succeed.

The Definition and Core Competencies

I would like to put forth the following definition as a recommendation to be considered and adopted by the emergency management community as the official and definitive definition of the emergency manager. The definition must be also be accompanied by the supporting competencies.

Emergency Manager: An individual assigned with the role to manage risks associated with the prevention, protection, mitigation, response and/or recovery efforts of any hazard, and is able to lead and adapt while operating in unconventional environments with limited information.

Core Competencies
It’s important to note that these competencies are cross-cutting for all stages throughout one’s career in the profession. What changes from an apprentice to expert are the complexity and impact of the associated behaviors and tasks for each competency. For example, the types of decisions one makes at the entry-level position will be very different than at an executive level, but the ability to know how to go through a decision-making process is equally important at both levels.

Self-care and management
Being comfortable in austere, fast-paced and stressful work environments
Interpersonal skills
Effective communicator
Verbal and written
360 communication – across different audiences and platforms; horizontal and vertical
Appropriately uses and understands social media
Coalition building
Establishes an environment of trust for team members to operate effectively
Empowers others
Decision-Making – Applies different models and techniques appropriate to the situation. “Makes decisions at pace with the level and speed of disruption.” (Lagadec, 2009)
Critical thinking
Ethics, integrity and accountability
Situational and environmental awareness
Emotional, social and cultural intelligence
Political savvy
Adaptive management styles
Technical proficiency in general emergency management principles and key concepts, to include position-specific requirements
Understands and complies with NIMS and ICS principles
Is able to utilize and coordinate resources and capabilities from across the entire community of emergency management stakeholders
Is technically qualified and proficient in their own position within the organization
Continual learner
Aspires for continuous improvement
Actively contributes to and is engaged in the community of practitioners

Works Cited

FEMA. (2008, December). National Incident Management System. Washington, D.C.: Department of Homeland Security.

Lagadec, E. (2009). Leadership in Unconvenctional Crises. Washington DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations.