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Meeting Future Emergency Management Challenges Through Education

Capabilities, competencies and accreditation in emergency management education.

The world of emergency management is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent, and as the emergency management profession grows, the risks become more complex. From 9/11 and Katrina in the past to the Cascadia fault in the future — how and with what is the emergency manager in the future going to … manage?

Nobody is more interested in that question than academia. After all, most emergency manager positions require a college degree as well as training and experience in the field. The number of programs offering degrees has increased from just a few in 1995 to almost 300 today.

The debate has been one of consistency and content — what knowledge and skills should emergency management higher education programs integrate into their curriculums to meet the future challenges of the profession?

Core Capabilities

To help in the process, FEMA leadership issued the National Planning Frameworks, which include the National Preparedness Goal (NPG) that lists the 32 core capabilities intended to assist all emergency managers in protecting our communities. They are listed by major area (planning, intelligence and information sharing, etc.) and tied to the five mission areas (prevention, protection, mitigation, response, recovery) detailed in the frameworks. The capabilities listed within the NPG are functions FEMA would like to see emergency management organizations adopt and integrate, and they are “intended to assist everyone who has a role in achieving all of the elements in the goal.”

Core Competencies

FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute Higher Education Program sponsored a yearlong focus group to identify an individually centered kind of capability — a core competency. Those core competencies, reported at the 2016 FEMA Higher Education Symposium in June, enumerate 12 more personal aspects important to all future emergency managers.

“It is important to explore how to best prepare the next generation of professionals to address continually evolving risks,” said Steve Jensen, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, and one of the FEMA moderators for the next-generation core competencies focus group. “We are educating a new breed of worker to align with these changes.”

The focus group came up with a list with four main aspects and 12 core competencies for future leaders:

Emergency management leadership

Operate within the emergency management framework and principles — all necessary actions to prevent for, prepare/protect, respond to, recover from and mitigate threatened or actual threats.
Facilitate community risk understanding and ownership — support the need for the community to “own” the risks its residents are exposed to.
Community leadership team building and resource management — with an emphasis on team building, collaboration and collective leadership.

Organizational expertise

Understand complex systems — understand and manage interdependencies that reduce risk.
Risk governance — advocate for risk awareness, assessment, measurement and reduction.

Problem solvers

  • Critical thinking — innovative thinking to help decision-making in complex environments.
  • Professional ethics — standards of expected and appropriate conduct, principles and moral/ethical values.
  • Continual learners — operating in a dynamic and continually evolving risk environment requires more than the simple acquisition of new skills and fact accumulation.

Broad knowledge base

  • Scientific literacy — the ability to make decisions about the natural world and human activity based on scientific knowledge.
  • Geographic literacy — having a foundational understanding of the geographic configurations of hazards, vulnerability and risk.
  • Sociocultural literacy — understanding human behavior and how people increase their own vulnerability.
  • Technological literacy — knowing how to incorporate emerging technologies.

Emergency Management Triad Model

We can theorize the emergency management triad as education (formal and informal acquisition of knowledge), training (application of acquired knowledge in a controlled setting) and experience (application of knowledge and training in uncontrolled settings). Doing that, almost all the FEMA NPG core capabilities are clustered into the first group of emergency management higher education (EMHE) core competencies: emergency management leadership. What’s missing in the NPG capabilities are those competencies and attributes professional emergency managers use every day, like team building, critical thinking, ethics and understanding the science (such as risk and hazard) behind what they’re doing. These are filled in by the core competencies.

The focus group studied past research that defined core competencies, including the one published in 2005 by Wayne Blanchard, the director of the higher education program from 1994 to 2010. 

However, the heated discussions during this FEMA higher ed symposium didn’t revolve around capabilities or competencies as much as how to get them integrated into the profession. If degrees are being required for most emergency management jobs these days, wouldn’t it make sense to integrate those capabilities and competencies as standards applied to higher ed programs?

Standards are rather simple — they are a set of key rules applied to a program, defined as a value established by authority, custom or general consent as a model or example to be followed. Curriculum standards are generally voluntary but become mandatory for programs seeking accreditation.


FEMA higher education also sponsored a different focus group “to explore whether accreditation for EMHE programs was warranted and, if so, to what standard(s).” The Emergency Management Higher Education Accreditation Focus Group also reported its findings at the 2016 symposium.
Consistency has been at the core of the discussion of academic programs for many years. While the problem of what core competencies/capabilities has revolved around specific aspects of emergency management — the educational foundations and personal attributes a future emergency manager should have — the discussion about EMHE programs has revolved around standards.

The report from the focus group determined that accreditation of EMHE programs was not only warranted but also feasible, and desired by more than 100 campuses surveyed during the process. The focus group stressed it would not be the accrediting body; rather, its members were generating and recommending standards for others to use. The scope was pretty clear:
“These standards are voluntary for degree program accreditation. These standards are intended for degree programs that are face to face, blended/hybrid and wholly online. While the standards language was drafted primarily for application to B.A. programs, the standards language is written broadly in terms of curriculum content to allow for application in associate, bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degree programs assuming appropriately advanced learning objectives and expected level of expertise at each higher level of degree.”

The standards proposed by this FEMA focus group are very detailed and fall into three areas:

Institution and administration

Asks for documentation about the primary institution, facilities, equipment, technical support, the library, organization, budget, faculty, etc.

Program objectives and curriculum structure
Asks for documentation about consistent program objectives and learning outcomes, a degree plan, an ongoing process of assessment, etc.

Program content

Asks for documentation about foundational topics addressed in each curriculum including, for example, hazards analysis, vulnerability theory, historical awareness of disasters; international dimensions; key topics across the mission areas of mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery (social dimensions, political contexts); opportunities for students to gain practical emergency management experience, skills in communication, stakeholder engagement, leadership.

The emergency management profession has principles, goals, a framework, core capabilities, core competencies and standards. It is now up to students to demand that the courses they pay for fulfill these requirements, and it is up to academia to meet the challenge.