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Dueling Degrees: Emergency Management vs. Homeland Security

The emergency management and homeland security communities vie for supremacy in academia.

Today’s emergency management and homeland security practitioners often find themselves at an impasse in defining their individual responsibilities. If there is a clear line between what is considered to be a “homeland security” function or an “emergency management” function — or even what is common to both — it is still on the table for discussion.

This real-world dilemma between the boundaries is echoed in academia. When the DHS was created, a focus on terrorism pushed the concept of all-hazard disaster management to the back burner. Emergency management — having already developed higher education degrees, certifications, standards and associations — found itself struggling with homeland security for recognition, respect and funding.

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“I call the gap between homeland security and emergency management ‘sibling rivalry,’” said David McIntyre, a visiting fellow at the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute (HSI) and director of Homeland Security and Defense Programs at the National Graduate School. “One is older than the other, one recently has been flashier in the news. But when you get right down to it, they are both family.” 

Nevertheless, beyond the conflict is a real dilemma for the academic side — whether to maintain and justify two similar but separate degree programs.

Focusing on Prevention

While academic degrees in emergency management have been flourishing for the past 15 years, homeland security degrees evolved as colleges and universities moved to fill national security needs in the aftermath of 9/11. Just as academia responded to World War II with courses in international relations, and the Cold War led to an increased emphasis on science and technology, academia responded to 9/11 with a curriculum that included topics such as intelligence analysis and critical infrastructure protection.
Consequently, homeland security degree and certificate programs exploded. The FEMA Higher Education Conference in June 2012 reported about 125 academic programs in homeland security, homeland defense, terrorism or terrorism-focused security studies. Stan Supinski, a former director with the Naval Postgraduate School and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, and associate professor at Long Island University’s Homeland Security Management Institute, puts that number higher when certificate programs are included. “When you consider that before 9/11, there were no programs called ‘homeland security’ and now there are between 350 and 400 — that is really incredible” he said.

Supinski describes the early rifts between homeland security and emergency management as frustrating.  “Emergency managers were saying this homeland security stuff is nothing new, just an added focus on terrorism,” he said. “There are very clear distinctions that differentiate these fields of study, but there is also substantial overlap.”

In Supinski’s view, what primarily differentiates homeland security and emergency management is prevention, which was added as a separate, fifth component to the four traditional emergency management phases of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Prevention was added to the formula as part of the 2007 update of the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs. Although the intent was to bring the standard into alignment with related disciplines, the addition was widely interpreted as trying to resolve the conflict between the all-hazards approach to emergency management and the need to enhance homeland security.

The intent wasn’t entirely successful as practitioners on both sides of the emergency management/homeland security fence bristled at the idea that there were enough similarities to put them in the same community, much less the same family.

Community and Commonality

Community was a big part of the problem, according to McIntyre. “It is important to understand [emergency management and homeland security] were two different communities and were entirely ignorant of each other,” he said. “And what happens when people don’t know each other? Suspicion and hostility.”

Reaction from academia to a need for community was scattered and the result was as convoluted as higher education can get. Existing emergency management or criminal justice programs were repurposed using existing curriculum, new courses were created, new degrees were approved. Progress made in building emergency management degree programs was discounted while processes already in place for developing standards and core competencies stalled. The discussions about how different or similar the fields are was skipped altogether. Recently there has been a lot of backtracking to try to pick up all those missing pieces.

If there is any agreement about what is common in both fields, it is the criticality of knowing, understanding and appreciating each other. Most of the current degree programs feature introductory courses for both homeland security and emergency management. That is certainly a start.

“In the past few years, especially at the FEMA Higher Ed Conference, I’m really glad to see the two sides [emergency management and homeland security educators] come together,” said Supinski. “I’m heartened by the atmosphere, the willingness to look across the aisle and recognize the fact that we all belong on the same side.”

McIntyre agrees there is significant overlap between the two fields and it revolves around each side knowing neither can do its job without the other. “I don’t ever think they will become a single community and for good reason,” he said. “I don’t want responders to set priorities based on what is best for the national economy. And I can’t afford for national-level planners to be worried about how many fire trucks there are in Omaha.”

The Role of Academia

If academia initially helped exacerbate the lack of community spirit between emergency management and homeland security, there are certainly things they could do now to help calm the waters. The first would be to recognize there is a core field curriculum with ample opportunities for specialization.

In his position with the Naval Postgraduate School, Supinski used a Venn diagram with three interlocking circles when he briefed university administrations wanting to develop their own homeland security degree programs. The circles represented national security affairs, public administration and emergency management. The intersection of those circles is the core knowledge that leads to a specialization in all the other areas. Academia generally missed that distinction, concentrating less on the core and more on the periphery.

One way to find community consensus would be to recognize that a higher education degree in either homeland security or emergency management should first be based in management and leadership skills, collaboration, familiarity with all kinds of hazards, and strategic as well as tactical thinking. Beyond that, and depending on the position, it may require knowledge as diverse as understanding the problems of border security in Arizona or the science of tsunamis in the Northwest.

Another important step academia could take to nurture community between homeland security and emergency management was high on McIntyre’s list: invest the resources to create a cross-disciplinary program of study. He blames the universities for putting profit first and refusing to invest in a broad faculty with the skills to address a combined program.

Higher education in this area is changing, but universities are still slow to recognize the value of practical experience. “We are seeing adult learners who want a combination of academic and applied instruction,” McIntyre said. “It will be another generation before there is faculty with academic credentials and practical experience.” In the meantime, programs that don’t integrate educated practitioners — with or without a Ph.D. — just aren’t going to flourish.

The problem McIntyre would “lay at the feet of DHS” is the failure in clearly stating what skills and education are necessary for people graduating and looking for jobs in either homeland security or emergency management. “We put a huge amount of federal effort in sorting out skills matrices and exercises and almost no time and thought into the linkage between education and work performance,” he said.

The biggest distraction to creating an academic community around these two related fields is just semantics. In a dazzling display of sibling rivalry, proponents of both emergency management and homeland security stubbornly resist any consideration of a common label. The “name” debate makes the whole discussion as polarized as election-year politics.

“What would we call it?” Supinski asked. “That is a tough one. We are still going to have emergency managers and we are still going to have people who want to focus on homeland security.”

McIntyre likes civil security to describe both camps because it helps clarify the fundamental difference between local and national security interests. 

“The trick is that neither can be only one thing,” McIntyre said. “If homeland security tries to create concepts and plans without regard for the emergency manager actually executing them, it is just a castle built on the wind. On the other hand, if emergency managers focus only on their own networks and not what is working its way down from the national level, they are going to be constantly surprised and disappointed when resources are funneled elsewhere.”

The potential disconnect is obvious, yet few are stepping forward to offer a compromise — not DHS, as the major employer of both homeland security and emergency management professionals; not academia, as the provider of knowledge; and not the professionals out there taking care of business.

“The main point to emphasize is that the two really do go together,” Supinski said. “Once we can come to some agreement on that, our whole community will benefit and we can grow together the way we should have been all along.”

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a certified emergency manager and certified business continuity professional. She also writes the Disaster Academia blog for Emergency Management

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.