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How Emergency Management Is Changing (For the Better)

Some of the pre-eminent women in emergency management share how they got into the field and how it’s evolved since the civil defense days.

Nancy Ward surveys storm damage in Kentucky as FEMA's acting administrator in 2009. Photo courtesy of Andrea Booher/FEMA
Andrea Booher/FEMA
Like all professions, emergency management has evolved throughout the years to become what it is today — a defined field of work that’s paving a career path for future employees. The modern concept of emergency management has grown from the civil defense days — when in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a federal office to protect civilians and respond to community needs in wartime. As state and local governments saw the need for programs focusing on emergency management, veterans and retired first responders were the go-to candidates to fill these positions.

Emergency management has had its share of challenges as people — from government and the public — sought to understand what it is and why it’s important. Even though historically there has always been some aspect of emergency management in the United States, hurricanes and earthquakes in the late 1960s and early ’70s were catalysts behind legislation and an increased focus on natural disasters. Then in 1979, FEMA was created by presidential order, and people saw the likenesses between the agency and civil defense. There also was a shift toward focusing on all hazards.

Since the profession was traditionally filled with first responders and veterans, it was a male-dominated field, but that’s changing, and programs are developing to educate the work force’s next generation.

A survey by the Emergency Management Professional Organization for Women’s Enrichment (EMPOWER) from 2006 showed that the field is evolving to include a greater percentage of women — but the employment growth is slow. Of the 202 respondents (71 percent of which were female), only 10 percent had more than a decade of experience. The majority of respondents, 35 percent, had fewer than five years’ experience.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s annual employee survey also shows similar numbers — more women work for the department, but change isn’t happening quickly. Survey results indicated that in 2007, 32 percent of the department’s employees were women; in 2010, 37.5 percent were female.

A look at some of the pre-eminent women working in emergency management roles provides insight into how they got into the field, positive changes they’ve seen and what’s in store for the future.

Undefined Career Paths

Aside from the traditional method of filling emergency management roles with second-career professionals, another common way people got into the field was by accident. “We are trending away from people, like me, who backed into the field,” said Nancy Dragani, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, who began her career as a disc jockey with Armed Forces radio and joined the National Guard when she got off active duty. Dragani spent time at a local agency before going to Ohio Emergency Management as a public information officer.


Nancy Dragani, executive director, Ohio Emergency Management Agency. Photo by Larry Hamill

“Like most people in my generation, I really backed into it; it wasn’t something that I intentionally went to school for or wanted to be,” she said. “It simply was something that as I learned about it, interested me, so I began looking for opportunities to get into the field.”

Although Dragani eased into the position as the state’s director, her background gave her a unique view into the role. Working in public affairs, she was required to know about all of the agency’s functions. And before leading the agency, she also served as director of operations. She’s by no means the only person who took an indirect route into emergency management.

Nancy Ward, administrator of FEMA Region IX, began her career working in California’s Department of Social Services for 15 years. After federal disaster declarations in the state, she volunteered with a grant program that provided assistance to families and individuals affected by a disaster. “I did that in 1983 and just loved what I got to do in terms of going out to recovery centers and talking to disaster survivors about our program and what we could help them with,” she said. “I just fell in love with it.”

Ward volunteered after every disaster and eventually was running the program. From there she moved to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services where she oversaw operations, individual assistance and recovery programs. Ward joined FEMA in 2000 as the response and recovery division director for Region IX — which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and five U.S. territories — and became the regional administrator in 2006.

“I think that women migrate toward these kinds of jobs, because they have an innate characteristic that they want to help,” she said.

The traditional way of local-level employment also mimics Dragani’s and Ward’s stories. Barb Graff began working in the Bellevue, Wash., city manager’s office in 1983, and following the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, the city created an emergency management program. Although Loma Prieta struck Northern California, Graff said it was a “seminal incident” that started many programs in the Pacific Northwest. “I had already declared to the city manager that I was ripe for a new opportunity,” she said, “so the change knocked on my door when we created the first-ever emergency management program.”

Graff stayed in that role for 15 years before moving to Seattle, where she has directed the city’s Emergency Management Office since 2005.

Although these are just a few examples of how people traditionally started working in emergency management, they represent the majority of the field — that is until changes within the last decade opened new doors for career seekers.

So Long Good Old Boys’ Club

Emergency management has been called the “good old boys’ club,” which can be attributed to the field’s tradition of hiring from the military and first responders. That’s not to say that women aren’t included, but by default, the roles have been primarily filled by men.

Claire Rubin, who has held various roles in emergency management and homeland security over the last 33 years and now works as a consultant, said that in the late 1970s and early ’80s, it was hard to find other women working in the field. She said that Susan Tubbesing, the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center director at the time, wanted to have women and minorities attend the center’s annual conference. Tubbesing would call Rubin to inquire about women she knew in the field to increase the event’s diversity. “It definitely required an effort to find them,” Rubin said. “They just weren’t working in the field, or if they were, they were mostly much younger and therefore not in positions of enormous responsibility yet, because we were working our way in.”

That sentiment is echoed by others. Marg Verbeek, an associate with Good Harbor Consulting and past president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, said that when she attended conferences 20 years ago that brought together as many as 500 participants, only a handful of women were present. And even today, when it comes to high-level roles, there are few women heading state offices. During Ellen Gordon’s time as administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management office from 1986 to 2004, she said there were never more than three women in similar roles nationwide. That number hasn’t increased drastically since then. Gordon said there are now five females who are state directors.

John Granen

Barb Graff, director, Seattle Office of Emergency Management. Photo by John Gragen

Emergency management’s civil defense roots contribute to the lack of diversity. “When I first got into [the field], it was very male-dominated, and of the men in the field, it was very military-dominated,” Graff said. “I think that still continues to some extent at the state level, but I have seen a big change here in Washington. I’ve seen many more women at conferences, professional development opportunities and much more networking. So I think it’s evened out quite a bit.”

Another contributor is the nation’s tradition of hiring first responders pursuing second careers in emergency management. In some instances, it’s still a driving factor. “There definitely is a group of folks in emergency management who feel if you have not been a true first responder — meaning police, fire, [emergency medical services] — that maybe you don’t really know how it all works,” said Kirby Felts, assistant director of the University of Virginia’s Emergency Preparedness Office. “I would argue that. I think that I could be a good emergency manager without having to respond on scene to deal with and be in the heat of the moment.”

Graff pointed out that these issues aren’t unique to emergency management and noted that “being a relatively young field, it’s had to learn the hard sexist lessons that every other profession has had to learn.”

Emergency management professionals agree, however, that the field has changed, and there’s no longer a focus on gender. “I think that certainly in the early days, we probably had to prove ourselves a bit more in terms of our skills, abilities and capabilities,” Ward said. “I don’t really see that much anymore. I think right now, we’re just looking for competent people, whether they’re men or women.”

Emergency management as a profession has grown throughout the years, aside from the natural evolution of a career, and specific events and developments have contributed to the changes. A major game changer was the 9/11 terrorist attacks that altered the nation’s view of emergency management. Homeland security was quickly elevated as a national priority and, for many, it opened up new career possibilities. People who may not have been aware of the nation’s longstanding background with civil defense were inundated with information about the new U.S. DHS and the need for disaster recovery and preparedness.

“I think the expansion of the career and emergency management community — and focus because of these large events and certainly because of how 9/11 changed the world and created a whole different dynamic — has opened it up exponentially for men and women,” Ward said.

This also was highlighted in EMPOWER’s survey, which showed that many people, especially women, got engaged in the field after Sept. 11, 2001. “The majority of women in emergency management had joined in the last 10 years,” said Felts, who chairs EMPOWER’s board of directors. And those becoming emergency managers in the last 10 years have been younger, ranging from 25 to 34 years old, according to the survey.

Another factor influencing the profession’s future is the addition of higher education programs that focus on emergency management and homeland security. There are more than 250 programs nationwide — a major change from people getting into the field every way but through a direct path.

“It’s exciting for me to see both women and men who want to be in emergency management, who are going to school to be emergency managers and not something that’s a retiree’s profession,” Dragani said.

Gordon, an associate director with the Naval Postgraduate School, said the availability of degree programs will lead to an increase in women working in emergency management. “Like anything, I think it will take time as the degree programs mature and people going through the courses graduate and so forth,” she said. “But I think it will certainly open up the door.”

With the influx of degree programs, many question their reputation or if they should attend in-person or online classes. But a college’s location can impact students’ career paths, Rubin said, giving them a “decided advantage.” Colleges located near D.C. — like George Washington University, George Mason and the University of Maryland — are likelier to produce graduates who go on to work for federal contractors or agencies, the Red Cross or a large consulting firm, Rubin said, but students who attend the universities of South Carolina or Alabama are likelier to become emergency managers in the public sector.

Defining Emergency Management

A longstanding challenge for emergency management has been that people, both the public and within government, don’t understand what it is. And as more people seek to become emergency managers, they’re creating a work force that has a diverse set of backgrounds. EMPOWER’s survey showed that 54 percent of the women respondents have nontraditional backgrounds, meaning they come from fields including mental health, IT and public relations. Although the diversity provides a wealth of knowledge and the ability to understand the needs of a community, some say it adds to the confusion.

“The emergency management profession still does not have a clear identity, and it is emerging toward full stature,” said Good Harbor Consulting’s Verbeek, who previously was an emergency manager in Canada’s Waterloo Region. “The principles are not readily known, and the body of knowledge is very diverse. The people entering the profession come from a great number of backgrounds, which is necessary, but makes the evolution to a profession quite challenging.”

Verbeek wrote her master’s thesis on the evolving roles of emergency managers and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She said an emergency manager’s key tasks and roles are generally not understood very well by elected officials. “When you say that you are an ‘emergency manager’, the general public and often other governmental officials do not know what that means or the work that you do.”

She looked at emergency management starting in the 1950s when it was more reactive and focused on response only. Then in the ’70s and ’80s, the role was given to someone like a fire chief — who already had a full-time job and the emergency management function became an additional responsibility. By the late 1980s and into the ’90s, Verbeek said a new set of imperatives arose like sustainable development, and people pushed for increased safety. Then in 1992, Hurricane Andrew displaced 250,000 people and caused major damage to infrastructure. “Devastating disasters like Hurricane Andrew brought to the forefront the role of an emergency manager as a coordinating authority responsible to ensure that all organizations, whether governmental, private sector or nongovernmental, were working together to mitigate the situation,” she said. “For the first time, the question of, ‘What makes you qualified to be an emergency manager?’ was raised. Clearly the role of an emergency manager was transforming.”

Another challenge is being considered an essential part of a community’s “public safety fabric,” as Graff called it. She said the profession has done much of its own marketing through the years — everyone knows what a fire department does, but it has taken time for people to realize that communities also need emergency management offices. The Loma Prieta earthquake made this clear in Washington state, and each state and locality — depending on its geography and critical infrastructure must look into how to prevent and respond to man-made and natural threats.

But there is one thing everyone can agree on: Emergency management as a profession and philosophy has advanced since the 1950s. A more defined career path is being created for the future work force, which is making the profession more diverse both in terms of the people who work in it and their backgrounds.

How do I get into emergency management?

The following are tips and advice from leaders at different levels of government.

Barb Graff, director, Seattle Office of Emergency Management: Volunteer and take advantage of free training. “No. 1, the agency gets unpaid labor, but you, by volunteering, get invaluable experience and contacts. There’s also now a wealth of training that you can take free online through the independent study courses offered by the Emergency Management Institute. Finally, more and more emergency management programs open their doors during training and exercises. They need role players, simulators, evaluators and such, and volunteering to help with those makes you more of a known commodity.”

Nancy Dragani, executive director, Ohio Emergency Management Agency:
Be open to all opportunities. Dragani said none of the people who work for her broke into the field right off the bat — one woman started as a dispatcher with the highway patrol, and another worker took a temporary job as a disaster relief grant employee, and then moved up through the program’s ranks. “All of them took what could be considered neutral steps or side steps to get into the field. They recognized that those might be necessary to achieve their long-term goal of getting into the emergency management career.”

Nancy Ward, administrator, FEMA Region IX:
Identify your focus. There are numerous opportunities at the local, state and federal levels, and many agencies like public health, have a nexus to emergency management. “I think it takes a little bit of inquiry into really what is a person, where do they see their skills and abilities applying, and what do they want to do in the arena of emergency management.”

Networking and Job Development for Women

There are many organizations that bring together and educate the nation’s emergency managers. Here are three that cater to women:

The Emergency Management Professional Organization for Women’s Enrichment (EMPOWER) is a nonprofit started in 2005 to “help women advance their careers through networking, mentoring and promoting educational opportunities in the field of emergency management,” according to its website, EMPOWER hosts webinars and speaker sessions, and piggybacks on national conferences by having networking sessions while they’re ongoing, said Kirby Felts, who chairs the organization’s board of directors.

She said EMPOWER also holds a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) study circle, a monthly preparation session done via conference call that’s sponsored by the International Association of Emergency Managers. “We talk through different parts of the application package and share ideas on interpretation of the questions and what they’re asking for,” Felts said. About three times during the study cycle, a CEM commissioner will answer questions and help participants through the process.

The International Network of Women in Emergency Management connects leaders in government, the private sector, nonprofits, professional associations and community- and faith-based organizations. Participants are kept up-to-date through conference calls and a LinkedIn group. According to the organization’s website,, it’s “comprised of a network of international men and women leaders with a passion to create global emergency management systems and partnerships, which promote safer, resilient, sustainable, and prepared, diverse communities and elevate the status of women.”

Another organization, Women in Homeland Security (WHS), is a nonprofit that was founded in 2009 and has more than 800 public- and private-sector members. “Through monthly meetings, book club, WHS University and the group’s charity work, Women in Homeland Security fosters a collaborative environment for homeland security professionals to improve our nation’s security and intelligence on critical homeland security topics confronting the nation,” according to the website,