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Emergency Management Education: Finding an Accredited Degree Program

As the profession moves forward and the demand for degrees increases, there is interest (and pressure) to adopt an accreditation process for emergency management education.

These days, unlike 10 or 15 years ago, getting that first job in the emergency management field — or moving up — depends on having an academic degree. Any degree is good, but a degree in emergency management often works better.

There are certainly many schools offering degrees and certificates. The question for most students comes down to: “Which school?” Students want to get as much as possible out of the money and time they are spending on a degree, and they’re looking for a program that has some kind of validity. Much like a degree in law or accounting, they want their degree to be recognized within the profession.

What students are looking for is a degree that is accredited. To understand what that means, it helps to understand what accreditation is and how it’s applied.

Accreditation: Standards and Programs

Accreditation is simply a method for documenting that an organization can demonstrate accountability by conforming to a recognized standard. A standard is a value established by authority, custom or general consent as a model or example to be followed.

It is important to understand that accreditation is voluntary. It might be good practice and there may be good financial or reputation reasons to seek accreditation, but it is not required.

Accreditation can be obtained in many different ways. Fire departments are accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International; police departments are accredited by the Commission for Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies; and one of the better known accreditation programs is the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. In the emergency management area, there is EMAP — the Emergency Management Accreditation Program, which accredits facilities and programs in state and local government emergency management programs.

Accreditation for academia is similar. There are accreditation processes for schools (like Harvard or the American Military University) and degree programs (law, engineering, accounting, etc.).

The organizing nexus for academia accreditation is the U.S. Department of Education. The department doesn’t accredit programs or institutions, but does have a list of accrediting agencies it has recognized. DOE approval of an accrediting agency is important, because students can’t get government-backed loans without it. One of those agencies is CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. After a very rigorous process, CHEA ‘blesses’ organizations to provide accreditation for academic programs within their disciplines. For example, CHEA recognizes the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology as the organization to accredit engineering technology degrees and the American Psychological Association for counseling and psychology education.

Schools and Degrees

As the emergency management profession moves forward and the demand for degrees increases, there is interest (and pressure) to adopt an accreditation process for emergency management education. Actually making that happen has been problematic for several reasons:

1. One is the long-standing deadlock between emergency management academia and practitioners. This is based in the education versus training standoff: which is more important, which should have more funding, and how to balance emergency response and emergency preparedness.

2. What kind of standards and outcomes should be used for different levels of education? There are AA/BA/BS/MBA/MA/MS/Ph.D. degrees; there are majors and minors; there are certificates.

3. What method works for accrediting the multitude of different programs out there? Some emergency management degrees are standalone, most of them are housed within public administration, health sciences, engineering, continuing education, sociology, business administration, geography, nursing, public administration or health sciences — or almost anything.

One of the major discussions among practitioners is where to place the emergency management program in an organizational chart. Like degree programs, they are located within fire departments, police departments, EHS, facilities and standalone emergency management agencies, including in a governor’s, mayor’s or county executive’s world. All of those come with a perception bias, and most emergency managers would agree they work best as a standalone program with access to upper management. Currently, placement of emergency management in academia reflects its placement in the real world and makes it harder to pin down.

4. Who should offer emergency management education accreditation — an agency within the emergency management field or one associated with another discipline?

FEMA, as the centerpiece of the emergency management profession, has an interest in these questions. It wants to grow the profession with well qualified emergency managers. FEMA has demonstrated its interest by sponsoring focus groups that created the Principles of Emergency Management (PDF), the annual Higher Education Symposium, a great website with links to material like course syllabi, and training programs like Multi-Hazard Emergency Planning for Higher Education.

FEMA is currently sponsoring a focus group on accreditation, made up of academics and practitioners, that is working through those questions. Its final report should be ready before the end of this year. At the Higher Ed Symposium in June, the focus group presented an early report on its work. Group members asked the audience to weigh in on the question: “Should an emergency management accreditation agency be developed internally by the emergency management community, or should accreditation be turned over to an existing group?” The overwhelming consensus was the first — keep it in-house.

To that end, there are several existing groups interested in accrediting emergency management programs, but there is only one that could be considered in-house: the Foundation for Higher Education Accreditation, now known as the Council for Accreditation of Emergency Management Education (CAEME). It began in 2005 by practitioners frustrated with the educational level of students coming out of the explosion of emergency management and homeland security degree programs after 9/11. As of today, CAEME has accredited several programs — like Arkansas Tech and American Military University — as part of fulfilling the requirements as a fully recognized accrediting agency.

[Full disclosure: I have been part of FFHEA/CAEME since its inception, along with Kay Goss, Daryl Spiewak, Dorothy Miller and the late Craig Marks. Perhaps I am more than a little biased on this topic.]

There are traditionally several steps for a vocation to become a profession and it can take centuries to get that far. Emergency management has taken the fast track and has accomplished most of those in the past 20 years. It has universities, schools, associations, principles and ethics.

The next step is accreditation of emergency management education programs. After vigorous dialogue within the academic and practitioner community, that is also moving forward. The FEMA focus group on Emergency Management Accreditation should be releasing its recommendations this fall. The Council for Accreditation of Emergency Management Education is getting prepared. We are all looking forward to the next step.


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