The Emergency Manager: Changing of the Guard

Several factors are converging to slowly make the field of emergency management more diverse, a necessity for effective disaster response.

by / July 31, 2015
Charles Sharp is CEO of the Black Emergency Managers Association, which aims to increase diversity in the field. David Kidd/e.Republic

It’s no secret that the field of emergency management is not overly diverse. The typical emergency manager is an older white male. This lack of diversity is rooted primarily in the profession’s evolution. Many of the first emergency managers came from police, fire or first responder backgrounds, which for a long time were largely white, male-dominated fields in most parts of the country.

“Most emergency managers traditionally came from a pretty narrow slice of the professional world,” said Joe Partridge, disaster recovery business continuity manager for CareOregon, a nonprofit involved in health plan services, reforms and innovations. “Even as recently as the late 1990s, emergency management director positions were almost always located within a police or fire department and typically staffed by either a retired or close-to-retired person from a first responder background — typically 55 years old or older and a white male.”

Carmen Merlo, director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management in Oregon, has been working in emergency management for 18 years. “It’s often the case that I’m the only female in the room,” she said. “I still go to conferences where literally all of the panelists are white men.”

Following 9/11, emergency management as a profession changed, evolving into more of a stand-alone career and opening up possibilities for a more diverse workforce. Though the profession still lacks much diversity, evidence suggests the tide is slowly changing. Some say that is not only a positive change for the profession in general, but also necessary to effectively serve an increasingly diverse population.

The emergency management workforce continues to be dominated by whites, even as population demographics continue to change. Soon, however, whites will no longer be the majority.

“We are limiting our effectiveness by not having a more diverse cadre of emergency managers,” Partridge said. “Today people have a certain level of distrust of government, so anything we can do to ease that distrust is good. Having a staff that looks like the people they serve can create a powerful connection.”

But Partridge said it also goes beyond that. Diversity may be important to emergency management not only as a practical matter but also because of the unique nature of the problems emergency managers encounter.

“We need diversity in our field to effectively manage the challenges we face, which are very diverse and come at us in unique ways,” he said. “Part of the nature of being a disaster response organization is that you never really know what you’re going to be facing. I’ve found that a diverse team performs better in terms of finding the right solution at the right time than a more homogenous team.”

A diversity of experience and knowledge, said Merlo, leads to good public policy and better informed decisions. “We know that certain people have limitations — whether it’s mobility challenges, the fact that they don’t have a car or they don’t speak English — but we are responsible for protecting all residents of Portland, not just the majority of them,” she said. “We need to know what the barriers might be for people to either understand our message or to take the actions that we’re suggesting to them.”

In addition, diversity is important in helping Merlo’s organization build trust with certain communities in the city.

“We’ve learned from research and anecdotal information that when people are given emergency messages, one of the first things they do is to confirm the information — they don’t take action right away,” she said. “If we can build trust and relationships with diverse communities, hopefully that will result in people trusting the information we share and taking action more immediately.”

Painting a More Diverse Picture

Diversity can take many forms. So what does a more diverse emergency management staff look like?

“The key thing I strive for in the programs I run is a staff that resembles the community we serve,” Partridge said. “That means there’s gender diversity, racial diversity and diversity of experience. First responder and military backgrounds are great, but a lot of the work that we do could also be amenable to an urban planning background, a finance background or public policy background.”

Diversity in emergency management can help foster the whole community approach.

Charles D. Sharp is CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Emergency Managers Association, an organization dedicated to encouraging African-American involvement in emergency management.

“To look at diversity, we have to think outside the box and look at who is part of the whole community, then try to match our staff to what we see,” Sharp said. “Diversity means getting every member of the community involved in planning, preparedness and response. You need a staff that can relate to your community and help them better prepare before an emergency and recover after an emergency.”

Cities like Portland are making efforts to help shift the tide. The city’s most outwardly facing preparedness effort is its Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) program, through which it helps train residents in everything from light search and rescue to disaster medicine to how to turn off utilities.

“We want to make sure all of our programs are accessible to diverse communities,” said Merlo. “But if you look at who our NET volunteers are, the demographics skew very heavily toward older white males. For us to feel like we have a prepared, resilient community, we have to make sure we’re providing this training to other people as well.”

Part of the challenge was that the program was originally offered only in the evenings, making it difficult for some working women with children to attend, and was often located in remote areas of the city that were challenging to get to without a car. In response, Portland is now making child care available at NET events and delivering trainings in locations within various communities.

“We know that the people who have less suffer disproportionately during disasters, and we really want to focus the limited resources and personnel we have on those with the biggest need,” Merlo said. “It’s important that the decisions and policies we make benefit those that have the least.”

The city can also learn from some of those communities. “We’ve learned that the communities that have very strong social ties — where people know each other and look out for each other — tend to both respond better and recover faster from a disaster,” Merlo said. “But at the same time it’s often those communities that have the least. It’s not just about us taking care of them and protecting them; we also have a lot to learn from them.”

The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management employs 18 people, more than half of whom are women. The staff includes African-American, Hispanic and Asian members. While Merlo said she’s happy with the progress the agency has made, it still has a way to go in terms of achieving true diversity.  

But awareness itself can also go a long way toward helping change the status quo. “My obligation as a manager is to look at the staff I have and to look at each new candidate I’m looking to hire and ask myself, ‘Will this person increase the diversity of my team?’” Partridge said. “I try to add an additional element of diversity whenever I make a new hire. The idea I always come back to is I want a team that can efficiently solve the problems placed in front of us. It’s not about a set quota, it’s about how can I increase the diversity of my team to better serve the people in the community that we work for?”

A Slow but Steady Shift?

A few factors — such as the retirement of the baby boomers and the advent of emergency management degree programs at many universities — may help add diversity to the field over the next several years.

“New educational offerings in emergency management are helping to separate emergency management from its close ties to fire and law enforcement,” said Sharp. “In many jurisdictions throughout the U.S. more than 50 percent of emergency managers come from fire. Now is the time for emergency management to break off from that, and the degree programs are helping.”

One school Sharp knows of added Emergency Management 101 as a core requirement, so no matter what major a student chooses, he or she gets a basic introduction to emergency management along with it.

But some say the current degree programs have room for improvement.

“A lot of them have a very strong homeland security focus,” Merlo said. “I would like to see broader programs that also talk about climate change and natural hazards.”

The newness of the programs also leaves many unanswered questions. “It’s still too early to say if the degree programs are helping,” Partridge said. “Thus far in my experience, the degrees don’t necessarily make the difference in terms of whether we hire someone or not. In theory I can see it being helpful because it helps broaden the base from which we’re typically drawing candidates into the field. But I’m not sure it’s the top factor in helping increase diversity.”

Merlo said some of the responsibility lies within emergency management agencies themselves. “We could do more to make people aware of what bureaus like ours do, and talk to young people and educate them about a career in emergency management.”

Partridge agreed that awareness of emergency management is critical and sometimes requires agencies to reach out to other areas to find the diversity of skills they need.

“What’s helping is different industries increasing their understanding of the value of disaster management and emergency management,” he said. “I think specifically about health care and higher education. Those two industries have a lot of folks with really different backgrounds than you would normally find in other fields, so they draw an interesting and diverse candidate pool. I think those folks have started to branch out a bit and may find emergency management an interesting field to explore.”

“As people begin to understand that emergency management has broader connections to other areas, like urban planning and infrastructure maintenance, I think people will come into the field from different disciplines,” Merlo said. “And as the field becomes more professional and you start to see more defined career paths and educational programs that specialize in emergency management, we’ll start seeing greater diversity.”

Justine Brown Contributing Writer

Justine Brown is a veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at

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