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What You Should Know About Emergency Management Degrees

More than 180 emergency management programs dot the country’s higher education landscape, and realistic expectations are needed for students and employers.

Illustration by Tom McKeith
Illustration by Tom McKeith, Nov 2010 EM
Emergency management is a growing profession and is projected to continue growing at a rate of 20 percent or more, according to O*NET OnLine (created for the U.S. Department of Labor), which rates emergency management specialists as a “bright outlook occupation” in the labor market.

That growth is reflected in the increasing number of higher education programs offering degrees or certificates in emergency management.

More than 180 emergency management programs dot the country’s higher education landscape, and approximately 100 more colleges and universities are investigating, proposing or developing some sort of hazard, disaster and emergency management program, according to background information provided for FEMA’s 13th Annual Emergency Management Higher Education Conference held in June.

Just as the number of emergency management higher education programs is growing, the number of graduates from those programs is increasing, and expectations about what those degrees mean is often overstated.

Students expect an emergency management degree to give them the skills and knowledge they need to walk out of school and into a good job in the field. And employers expect an emergency management degree to give those job applicants skills and knowledge to make up for their lack of experience.

Neither expectation is very realistic.

The reality is that an emergency management degree helps the job seeker in a competitive environment, and it assures an employer that the applicants are up-to-date on the latest developments in the field. An emergency management degree doesn’t replace experience.

For the job seeker, a college degree really doesn’t guarantee anything — to which anyone with an English literature degree can testify. These days, degrees are used to eliminate candidates in job pools. Anyone looking for employment in a professional field can find herself at a real disadvantage without one — especially in a fledgling and popular field like emergency management.

“Right now, emergency management is a really competitive environment. There are not a lot of jobs and qualified people,” said Lucien Canton, a private consultant with 30 years of experience in local and federal government.

A degree will “bump you up” in the application process, Canton said. It assumes the applicant has college-level academic skills: He or she can write well, conduct research, synthesize information, analyze and interpret regulations, and formulate and follow plans through from beginning to end. He described a degree as “sort of a finishing school.”

Understanding the Nuances

Certainly emergency management is becoming more complicated and demanding. The numbers and consequences of both natural and man-made disasters are increasing, and public- and private-sector agencies are being taken to task for failing to mitigate or prevent the effects of those disasters. Employers are looking for emergency management professionals who understand the political and socio-economic nuances of disasters, as well as how to write a continuity of operations plan and maintain an emergency operations center.

“On the practical side, a degree gives you exposure to areas you don’t have experience in,” said Daryl Spiewak, the emergency, safety and compliance program manager for the Brazos River Authority in Waco, Texas. “It gives you an immersion into the field without going through the years of hard knocks and learning it all the hard way. It means you are more
up-to-date on current policy, theory and regulations than someone with just experience.”

Think of it as a shortcut, in a way. Spiewak suggested that an emergency management degree can significantly shorten the learning curve most emergency managers went through to get where they are today.

However, an emergency management degree doesn’t provide the experience employers are seeking, Spiewak said. “The degree says you can do things by the book; it doesn’t say you can apply it yet.”

If you deconstruct any profession — from an engineer to an attorney to a plumber — it breaks down into a predictable progression. In the 14th century, the time of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, careers developed through the apprentice-journeyman-master model that still exists today in education and many trades. For emergency management, that progression is the triad expressed as training, education and experience.

The traditional emergency manager role was planning and response, and most emergency managers came from response-oriented backgrounds — like fire, law and military — with strong training and field experience.

It’s important to remember that emergency management is moving from a narrowly focused occupation to a multilevel profession. As it’s grown into a profession, education has asserted itself, linking training and experience, and creating a new paradigm for the well rounded emergency manager.

But training isn’t the same as experience; education can’t replace experience. And employers are looking for applicants with all three: training, experience and education.

Even if you already have training and experience, it will be harder to follow the traditional path of a lateral move from a response organization into emergency management without a college degree. On the flip side: It also will be hard to get that first job out of college without some experience.

Scott Preston returned to school to get a master’s degree in emergency management after working long enough to get his Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification. He is currently the business continuity manager (located within the Emergency Management Department) at the University of Washington in Seattle.

When Preston earned his political science bachelor’s degree in the mid-1990s, emergency management degrees weren’t available. His first job in emergency management was as a full-time volunteer helping the local emergency management office with its continuity of operation and continuity of government planning.

Get Competitive

There will be increasing requirements for emergency managers, and the field is going to get more crowded so “it pays to be competitive,” Preston said.

“Scott speaks from direct experience and now mentors many new students and mid-career folks in the emergency management field,” said Steve Charvat, the emergency management director for the University of Washington, and Preston’s supervisor. 

To help, Preston wrote a guide, Suggested Career Tips for Emergency Management, that is posted on the university’s website and outlines how to start a career in the field. “If this is the career you want,” he said, “you have to make your own luck, find your own opportunities.”

There’s no substitute for experience, Preston admitted, “but there has to be a balance between what makes a well rounded emergency manager and someone else with oodles of response experience and nothing else.” 

Higher education is that balance between experience and an emergency management career. “The time will come when you aren’t an emergency manager if you don’t have that degree,” Canton said. “You can’t just say you are an engineer or a carpenter. You can’t just walk in the door and say you are an emergency manager.”

The new paradigm for emergency managers — education and experience — is one that Lindsey Holman embraces. She’s a client executive for James Lee Witt Associates in Washington, D.C., and received a bachelor’s degree in emergency management from Arkansas Tech University in 2008. 

Holman says her degree helped her land interviews, but the experience she got while in school was more helpful. “I participated in conferences, got to know people in local and state government, got lucky and was able to work some disasters while I was in school,” she said.

The degree gave Holman the basics, but much of the practical side was outside the classroom — she was required to do an externship and worked with the Campus Emergency Response Team.

The transition hasn’t been as difficult as she expected. “You learn how things should work in school, and then you get into the real world and learn how things really do work,” Holman said. “So much of it revolves around a bureaucracy, you have to understand that.”

There’s another, more altruistic, reason to get an emergency management degree. According to Canton, it goes toward making emergency management a profession and not an occupation. A degree shows interest in all phases of emergency management and isn’t limited to emergency response or a second retirement career.

Right now, however, “the degree thing is more future-oriented than today-oriented,” according to Eric Holdeman, former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. He said, however, that even today a degree gives the applicant an advantage.

Mike Kelly is working that advantage. Kelly, a senior at American

Military University, is about to graduate with a degree in emergency management with a specialty in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear hazards. He was a U.S. Marine air traffic controller during 9/11 and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he left the service. 

“Then I stumbled onto the FEMA Independent Study courses, and that is what sank the hook in,” Kelly said. The benefit of the degree for Kelly is being regarded as a professional, not just from his peers, but to himself. 

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Kelly talked to an emergency manager from a rural Midwest county. The man had never heard of the International Association of Emergency Managers, didn’t know what a CEM was and didn’t see a degree as necessary. He wears many hats, Kelly admitted, and it’s more difficult to stay involved and current in that kind of setting, but “it was frightening” to realize what the man didn’t know.

The areas common to all these professionals is a shared vision of where emergency management is going. That vision includes degrees in emergency management, the need for experience after leaving school, and professional certification like the CEM and Certified Business Continuity Professional.

Most position announcements posted now for emergency managers say a degree or certification is preferred, but Canton and Holdeman expect that to change in the next 10 years.

“I don’t know a professional certification that doesn’t require a degree,”  Canton said. “You won’t be taken seriously if you didn’t.”

The bottom line is that if current emergency managers want to be taken seriously, they’d be wise to start working on that bachelor’s or master’s degree now. And if future emergency managers want to take their place, they should be boosting their marketability by looking for experience opportunities while they’re still in school. k

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a CEM, Certified Business Continuity Professional and an instructor/lecturer for California State University, Long Beach. She also writes the Disaster Academia blog for
Emergency Management’s website at

Suggested Career Tips for Emergency Management

University of Washington Business Continuity Manager Scott Preston wrote a guide, Suggested Career Tips for Emergency Management, that outlines steps for starting a career path in emergency management:

  • Take independent courses in emergency management to learn about the field — FEMA offers a variety of online self-study courses.
  • Volunteer — Volunteer with your state, county or local emergency management office.
  • Take advantage of free professional magazines and publications — Natural Hazards Observer, Continuity Insights and (of course) Emergency Management.
  • Join a professional association and get certified — The International Association of Emergency Managers offers the Certified Emergency Manager and Associate Emergency Manager programs.
  • Be creative! — An emergency manager might be called something different and still have emergency management responsibilities in areas like public works, public health, special districts or private industry. Read the full guide online at


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