Over the years I've found that many people stumble upon the emergency management profession with the notion it's interesting, one that's focused on helping people and is exciting as portrayed in the movies and on television.

First, let's dispel the television and movie spin that is put on emergency management as a job. There was a made-for-TV disaster movie that lowered the FEMA director into a deep hole in order to set off an atomic bomb to prevent a series of earthquakes. Although there might have been times when some of us would have liked to lower the then-FEMA director into just such a hole, that's just fantasy.

The reality is that the daily existence for an emergency manager is a seemingly endless series of meetings, an inbox full of e-mails and 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's easy in the multidisciplinary, interjurisdictional environment we call the United States of America - I have a lesson or two for you in dealing with people and their personal priorities.

Actually most 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's one person who performs all the disaster preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery duties.

You'll only find larger emergency management programs at the state level and in larger counties and cities. Their sizes vary greatly. States might have 500-plus staff (e.g., California), down to a few dozen in rural states. In these settings, you might find staff who are focused on just one aspect of emergency management. You might deal with homeland security grant funding or be responsible for a public education program. You might design and conduct disaster exercises and the like. Then, when there's a disaster and you must activate the emergency operations center, everyone pitches in to work 24-hour shifts - weekends and holidays included.

The traditional feeder sources for emergency managers have been the military, fire and law enforcement professionals who are completing one career, sometimes retiring, and then moving into emergency management. It's also not unusual, for a very active volunteer in emergency management in smaller jurisdictions to be tapped to fill a permanent position because of his or her passion for emergency management and disaster preparedness.

Since 9/11, more than 150 colleges and universities have begun offering degrees in emergency management and homeland security. When I started in the business in 1991, there was one B.A. program in the nation. Now every state has some form of higher-education emergency management program, and there are many online courses to choose from.

This educational machine is producing a new crop of professionals, young college graduates and other mid-career professionals who are pursuing higher-level degrees in emergency management. They have 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, that means "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.

Read Eric Holdeman's blog, Disaster Zone.

Eric E. Holdeman  |  Contributing Writer
Eric Holdeman is the former director for the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management and now blogs at www.disaster-zone.com.