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The Value of Experience in Emergency Management

It doesn’t come from reading a book.

My November International Association of Emergency Mangers (IAEM) Disaster Zone column is all about the value of experience that comes from working in an emergency management position.

You cannot get experience from reading a book. Getting a degree in emergency management is terrific, but it is not experience. See my thoughts below on the topic.

The Value of Experience

Look at almost every job announcement and you will find sections in it that have to do with skills, experience, and education. It is not unusual to see a statement similar to this, “A master’s degree can substitute for two years of experience.” Who came up that idea in the first place? It sounds nice and in some academic circles it could be true, but there is little that substitutes for experience when it comes to emergency management.

Every new college graduate with a four year degree in emergency management bumps into the experience clause and heaves a big sigh. How can I get experience if I can’t get a job in the first place? More on that later, but let’s talk about experience.

It has been almost fifty years since I was tasked with writing a Disposition Form (DF) in the Army. I had a new position as the Executive Officer for an Infantry Company and that meant I had to do more paperwork. I agonized over how to write that DF. In the Army, back then anyway, you did not write in the first person. It was a new style that I was not familiar with, and I lacked “experience.” In a few months, writing a DF was routine—no problem!

Some experience is pretty basic. Coming to work on time, wearing the appropriate clothing, using “appropriate” language in the workplace and how to communicate differently with your boss, your colleagues, other jurisdictions, and citizens. I recently coached a new younger employee that when introducing herself in meetings that she should always use her first and last name—it is a professional environment and you want to present yourself as a professional.

Experience helps you understand the complexities of the workplace. We all come with some preconceived perceptions about “how it all works” and experience gives you a dose of reality. Early in my emergency management career I found out, “surprise! Fire and police don’t always get along!” Duh! Who would have thought that to be true? That revelation, gave me some “experience.”

When working on a piece of emergency management legislation, I found out that while it is important to know who will support the proposed bill, it is even more important to identify which people, groups, associations might be opposing the legislation. Experience taught me that.

When working at the county level I wanted to have an emphasis on regional planning and coordination. Not everyone has that same priority. The larger an organization is, they are used to ‘going it alone’ and not are looking to compromise on anything that they want to accomplish on their own. You can’t make them play nice in the sandbox either. That was a hard lesson in my experience journey.

During one part of my emergency management journey I learned that the key word to use when presenting to elected officials about spending money to tell them “this is a compliance issue” (which the issues were) and with that “compliance word” the checkbook opened and the questions and reluctance to spend money on disaster preparedness or readiness became much fewer. It is unlikely that the magic word “compliance” is taught in the university as a way to open the coffers.

Which brings us to the challenge of getting experience when you are young and challenged to find a paying job in emergency management. Depending on your circumstances, I suggest you volunteer with a professional organization. Establish a reputation for yourself in what you can accomplish. That reputation might lead to a position where you are volunteering or a letter of recommendation or phone call to places that you are applying for paid positions.

I might also suggest that you not wait to graduate to start volunteering. Getting some experience while still in school will help you understand academic concepts better and even keep you from writing lofty eyed treatises about how you could do this or that, without having a dose of reality that comes from experience.

Lastly, there is nothing like going through the fire of an actual disaster response that taxes your mental and physical abilities to continue to work 12-14 hour shifts for weeks on end—that will temper you like fire tempers steel. Disaster reality isn’t always welcomed, but it is a great teacher and when you graduate, you get the Experience Diploma.

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by Eric E. Holdeman, Senior Fellow, Emergency Management Magazine
He blogs at www.disaster-zone.com His Podcast is at Disaster Zone
Disaster Zone by Eric Holdeman is dedicated to sharing information about the world of emergency management and homeland security.
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