Is Emergency Management a Profession? (Opinion)

A profession is defined as a calling that requires specialized knowledge and academic preparation. Does emergency management fall under that description?

by / July 31, 2013
The American flag stands as a sign of strength in Moore, Okla., after the devastating tornado in May. Photo courtesy of Dominick Biocchi/FEMA

Emergency management is not a profession.

There are many things that make up a profession. Emergency management jobs exist at the federal, state and local levels but more entry-level positions are needed so people breaking into the field have a career path that doesn’t put them at a disadvantage to career-changing mid-level professionals.

Another requirement for a profession is to have a doctrine that establishes the process and procedures for what it is that we do. While there has always been “something” written down, the quantity and breadth of emergency management and the associated homeland security functions is becoming much deeper. University researchers and doctoral candidates are delving into topics that are providing a broad spectrum of knowledge about emergency management. 

If there is a profession, then there must be an educational system that supports the provision of young professionals and mid-level staff who return to school to get an advanced degree in emergency management. Once again, it was the 9/11 attacks that sparked the interest and creation of certificate programs, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in subjects that are specifically related to emergency management. Now we have at least one college or university in every state, whereas 25 years ago there was one in the nation. The curriculum for these institutions has not been standardized, and so there is a wide variety of subject areas that are studied with concentrations on topics that vary widely between institutions. 

Why is emergency management still not a profession? 

Elected and senior officials still select and appoint people with little or no emergency management experience to director-level positions. Granted, many of these appointees have management and senior-level leadership experience; it’s not a knock on them that they apply and get appointed. But have you ever seen a highly qualified fire chief appointed to be a police chief or the opposite? Would someone with absolutely no IT experience be appointed as the chief technology officer for a city, county, state, nation or business? 

It is evidently believed by the appointing authorities that emergency management is not a profession. There is no significant body of knowledge to be understood and exercised in the performance of one’s duties as an emergency manager. You just need to know how to manage a budget and lead people. The technical knowledge of the subject matter has little to do with the potential success of the individual selected to serve. 

I am sure that many will take issue with my assessment that emergency management has many of the trappings of a profession, but not quite the full measure of what it takes to be called a profession. I believe we will become a full-fledged profession when somewhere in the debate of who to appoint as the emergency management director someone says, “We cannot appoint him/her because he/she is not an emergency manager.”

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

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