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Emergency Management Must Resist the Status Quo (Opinion)

The next generation of emergency managers needs to be trained, educated, and certified in a similar manner to how we educate other public safety professionals, and communicate about many subjects, and manage millions of dollars.

FEMA director won't say how many N95 coronavirus masks have been ordered
Pete Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks about the coronavirus crisis in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Saturday, March 21, 2020 in Washington, D.C. At right is Admiral Brett Giroir, U.S. assistant secretary for health. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool/DPA/CNP/Abaca Press/TNS)
Stefani Reynolds/DPA/TNS
As we wade into another year, with COVID still around and more disasters lurking, let’s think about how we engage the next generation of emergency managers.

What do we need to teach them? How do we prepare them for success in a post-pandemic, climate changing, no-fail world? This goes beyond new FEMA Independent Study training courses to create or advertising more effectively for emergency management job opportunities.

I want to talk about the new skills (and a new emphasis on some traditional skills) that the next generation of emergency managers is going to need to be successful in the post-pandemic, changing climate, no-fail world in which we now live.

For all of us, the last two years have been life-altering. COVID-19 deaths are quickly approaching a million. Nearly one-fifth of the country has been infected. Widespread shortages of critical supplies and materials remain. Our Nation’s hospital system is overstretched and while medical professionals continue to perform daily miracles, this has long passed being sustainable or a situation where a “slow the surge” from April of 2020 can help.

Civil unrest and the apparent erosion of social cohesion continues. Record-breaking levels of devastating natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and tornadoes continue, leading to historic demands on post-disaster funding. And the launch of new opportunities for strengthening and building new infrastructure and mitigation all aimed at a new level of national resilience, to name but a few.

The challenge ahead—preparing for what comes next in this “new normal”—is dependent on the deliberate development of this next generation of emergency management professionals leading the leaders during the Nation’s next catastrophe.


The profession of emergency management is much younger when compared to other public safety partners. The fire services’ formal history dates back to the early 1800s and Napoleon Bonaparte, while organized police departments go as far back as the mid-1600s. Lots of history. Lots of trial and error. Lots of evolution.

The emergency management profession, as we know it today, has early roots with the rise of civil defense in the 1950s and 60s. It received an alarming major reboot following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Today, we are sitting on the starting line for version 3.0 of our profession. So, let's think about how we create that next generation of emergency managers for the challenges that lie ahead. What’s missing in the way we grow and nurture talent? What are the basic and advanced skill sets they need to master? What hazards and threats will they be responsible for? What will they be asked to respond to that we have not yet contemplated? Are we willing to make the investment to be ready?


First, we don’t grow or nurture talent; we “hope” that the talented find us and our mission of “helping people, before, during, and after disasters” one they want to commit to. Once the talented walk through the doors of their first job, we expect them to be a master of all. We expect them to have the ability to naturally lead people, not only during routine daily matters, but during horrific disasters that beset our communities.

For those who do show promise, we then wear them out with extreme work schedules and sub-par pay. We are then surprised when they leave for the private sector or a less demanding job. This is no way to cultivate (and retain) the profession, let alone the next generation of emergency managers.


The next generation of emergency managers needs to be trained, educated, and certified in a similar manner to how we educate other public safety professionals. We are making strides in this with FEMA’s Basic and Advanced Emergency Management Academy and the International Association of Emergency Managers “certified emergency management” designation, but the “system” is disjointed and lacks focus on the intended outcome.

Think about the wide range of duties that emergency managers must perform. They must be able to engage with their community on important subjects, such as flooding risk reduction and mitigation, and they must manage millions (possibly billions) of dollars in federal disaster and preparedness funding.

They must provide oversight of numerous public safety projects and initiatives. They must manage warehouses full of response supplies and materials. They must provide impeccable advice to elected leaders on preparedness and response actions, and lastly, they must interact with the demanding media and public.

I’m just scratching the surface here, but from this short list, emergency managers own a lot of disaster real estate. Why haven’t we demanded more formal and cohesive training? Why haven’t we demanded certification? Why don’t we have a formal pipeline of emergency manager candidates that must go through a prescribed period of instruction and qualification? Why can we develop police and fire candidates though a dedicated and accredited academy process, but not emergency managers? Why don’t all higher education programs have co-op opportunities for emergency manager students to get real-world experience in conjunction with their academic education?

What are we doing to encourage the current generation of students and young adults to enter the profession, so they are ready to replace the current generation that is aging out? In this profession lies a history of disappointment and underperformance where rapidly unfolding situations get quickly out of control. Why is that? Were we not prepared? Did we underestimate the situation? Did we lack the training and experience? Was it the wrong leader at the wrong time? Maybe we lacked vision of what we may face? We must be deliberate and thoughtful about the future we want, especially if we are to overcome the threats we will face.


The emergency management profession is a leader in training. FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) is the engine that drives emergency management training across the Nation, from Independent Study Courses at home, resident courses at Emmitsburg, Md., and specialized courses at Anniston, Ala., to States running EMI-sponsored courses and more. If there is a training problem, it’s that we have too much training. The training aperture is set too wide. What we need is more professional education. Training and professional education are not synonymous. If we want to shape the next generation of emergency managers, it is professional education that we need. Let me expound a bit further by describing how the US military invests in what they call “professional military education,” or PME.

If you are a commissioned officer or a member of the enlisted ranks, you are required to participate in PME. Lack of appropriate PME makes you less competitive for promotion and choice duty assignments, while inversely, attendance in PME gives you the opportunity to step back from normal duties and focus solely on your professional development. What is the point of PME you may ask? It makes the organization stronger, provides participants the tools to be more innovative and less risk averse, while improving skills of critical thought. PME is the final honing of an already tempered and sharp edge of basic training, tactics, techniques, procedures, and individual experiences. It gives you the advantage needed to overcome your adversary. In the case of an emergency manager, it can hopefully keep you from plunging into chaos.


Here are some of the skills we must continue to train our leaders to perfect:

Communicating with the Public: It doesn’t matter how well you think operations are going. It doesn’t matter that your staff says, “we have this under control.” What does matter is how clearly and concisely you communicate with the public. That communication, and understanding their sentiment, has become particularly difficult with the seemingly never-ending, 24/7 flow of content in which everyone has an opinion. Communicating with the public takes planning, coordination, rehearsal, patience, and maturity. When was the last time you practiced being grilled by the news media, in front of a live camera, speaking to a critical audience?

Communicating with Elected Leaders: As strange as it may sound, not all elected leaders can lead. Often, newly elected leaders have no experience navigating or leading disasters. In fact, many of their emergency managers, especially new ones, have never been given the opportunity to have a focused, extended emergency management conversation with the “boss.” Why? Because most elected leaders aren’t thinking about potential disasters. They are thinking about tax rates, education issues, social stressors, and reelection chances. The last person they want to see walking into their office is the emergency manager because that can mean just one thing – bad news. If you are fortunate enough to be an appointed emergency management director at the state or municipal level, you have a duty to bring the unvarnished truth about any unfolding situation to the “boss.” Depending on the circumstance, especially for the novice emergency manager, it takes moral courage to deliver bad news. It takes moral courage to speak truth to power. Have we prepared our emergency managers to undertake this withering task?

Communicating with the Media: During a disaster the media can be your ally, getting timely, life-saving information to the public. Even during these moments where you believe the media is in your corner, the circumstances can change in the blink of the eye. Now the media is suddenly critical of your actions and information; bringing in countering points-of-view while a camera and microphone are in your face. You only have one take, no do-overs allowed. With one misplaced word you could undermine your boss and more importantly, undermine your entire effort. How many emergency managers have been forced to step in front of a news camera for the first time in a live, real-world scenario? With so much at stake, why do we continue to let it happen?

Crisis Leadership: Leading for most is not natural. Most aspiring leaders must study, observe, and put leadership to practical application. You can’t study leadership and call yourself a leader. You must enter the arena and undertake the heavy burden of leadership. You must have the opportunity to grow, fail, and succeed. You must be taught. You must be tempered by opportunity and experience to be successful when it counts. When is the last time you allowed a less experienced leader under your authority to step to the front and take the lead? A professional education system must exist that develops the emergency management leaders of the future. Good leadership doesn’t happen by accident.

Understanding Risk: Our ability to understand risk is both simple and complex. If you live in Cameron Parish, La., you understand what the risks are: surge, coastal flooding, and hurricanes. If you live in Syracuse, N.Y., one of the safest and less risky places in the United States, you probably never think about natural disasters. Emergency managers must understand multi-faceted risk based on: the wide range of hazards; likelihood of occurrence; exposure; demographics; mitigation factors; and more. Understanding risk is at the core of all the actions we take leading into response, recovery and mitigation. Our ability to not only understand risk but embrace it is directly tied to how we shape leaders.

Understanding Complexity: The complexity of our lives and the tasks we must master is wide-ranging. There are simple ones, like how to open a can of soda. There are more complex ones, like how to and reassemble an automobile engine. With time and practice, many people can understand and perform the process. There are then tasks of such complexity, like understanding how the human brain functions, that we may never fully comprehend. The business of disasters can be a complex thing to understand. It is multiple elements interacting with each other, resulting in short-lived, randomized results. What happened last time is no guarantee to be what happens next time, even when faced with an apparently similar set of circumstances. Tied to the theory of complexity is chaos, the place that no emergency manager wants to find themselves. If not taught about complexity, then our ability to manage disasters will push us and the communities we serve over the cliff.

Understanding Critical Infrastructure (CI) and Interdependencies: We have spent years cataloging the sixteen DHS critical infrastructure sectors, from power distribution to water and wastewater systems. However, we continue to struggle with how each of these sectors and hundreds of subsectors interact and are interdependent on one another. It is a complicated puzzle to fully grasp.

We have hundreds of CI data layers, but continue to wrestle with analyzing and understanding this data well ahead of a disaster. The onset of a fast-breaking incident only brings more confusion and less certainty. The emergency management profession desperately needs to understand these complicated, complex, and sometimes obscure interdependencies well before a disaster occurs. We need a system and the people that allows us to be more predictive.

Deliberate Planning Process: The emergency management planning system needs a major overhaul. I’m not talking about the “Planning P” process that in my opinion is planning for the junior varsity team. That’s planning that just fulfills the immediate requirement for the next operational period. We need to look out farther, much farther than we have traditionally; this type of planning is called deliberate planning. Deliberate planning that is comparable to how the United States military conducts planning by using the tenets of what is called the Joint Planning and Execution System, or JOPES.

The overhaul of the current emergency management planning process also needs to include a separate and distinct “future ops” planning effort that focuses on days, weeks, even months ahead. Planning of this type will help all of us develop a range of strategies and courses of actions that will achieve the desired outcome. Currently, we live in the “planning moment”, rarely raising our head to see what may be coming over the horizon. That method often results with a swift punch to the face.

Practical Use and Analysis of Real-Time Data: It is critical to have access to and understanding of real-time data—from government, private and public sectors—to drive timely decisions. Linked directly to critical infrastructure and interdependencies, the emergency manager must have access to comprehensive key data sets and how they may impact the unfolding disaster. More importantly, how can emergency managers use this data to anticipate, avoid, or mitigate a disaster before the disaster happens? The profession needs to invest in hazard-focused intelligence analysts who are dedicated to understanding pertinent decision support data. Like our need to better understand critical infrastructure, interdependencies, and risk, we need to be more proactive and less reactionary.

Project Management: Over the past two or three years there have been some in the emergency management profession that believe emergency managers should have a familiarity, even an expertise, in project management. I tend to agree. The ability to build a framework that supports successful planning and execution, to set a budget, to design a schedule and set expectations with defined deliverables are all key to mission success. It would seem logical that we arm this new breed of emergency manager with some of the basic tools to be successful.

Concise Writing: There is nothing more important than clear and concise writing. The ability to write precise plans, apply for lucrative grants, craft convincing press releases, and post attractive job descriptions is part of an emergency manager's normal day.

Quality writing is directly connected to clear presentation, especially to the media and the public. Convincing writing also drives success in legislative initiatives. As basic and obvious as this requirement may seem, it’s an investment we can’t take for granted. Emergency managers that cannot write convincingly lack value to their community.

Thinking Beyond Response: The emergency management professional has long been focused on response for all the obvious reasons. We are good at responding. It’s what we have planned, trained and exercised for. For the most part, it’s what we get graded on by the public. Once the response is over, public interest wanes, life gets back to normal, and we reset for the next response. The unfortunate truth is that many emergency professionals are not invested in the recovery phase. Long-term recovery planning must begin before a disaster strikes. True success in our business happens in recovery. A better understanding of the complicated and sometimes convoluted recovery process is critical to drive true community resilience. Should we be response junkies or recovery experts?

Forging Partnerships: If there is one fact we have learned in our pandemic response is the need for an all-hands on deck approach. We have seen that governments can be overwhelmed, resources that we thought we had plenty of are exhausted, and once reliable supply chains broken. Our plans must better reflect the inclusion of businesses of every kind, non-profits, the whole of government, and individuals. As horrific as this pandemic has been, we need to imagine and prepare for something much worse. Using the Community Lifelines as an example, are you truly connected to each of the seven lifeline sectors and subsectors?


It’s time we recognize that the emergency management profession is at an important crossroads during this historic period. Do we revert to our old ways and follow the status quo, or do we deliberately set out on a new path that adapts to our present environment and embraces the successes and failures of the pandemic?

For meaningful change to happen, elected leaders at every level must make substantial investments in the core essentials of human capital. Without well-trained and educated emergency management professionals, the accomplishment of the mission becomes challenging. We must continue to “bake-in” diversity and equity not only into our business practices, but into our education process. We must insist that the professional organizations that represent the emergency management profession craft a national initiative and platform that all of us can get behind and champion. For emergency management stakeholders inside and outside of government, and those in higher education, we must come together to forge a more cohesive and outcome-driven professional education paradigm. We must insist that Congress make this a priority to avoid the pitfall of staying at status quo and more importantly, to be ready for the next global disaster. We must all understand that public safety equals national security. The Nation’s investment in public safety must parallel the importance it places on national security investments. We cannot continue to operate in the way we have.

Pete Gaynor is the immediate past FEMA administrator and currently is senior vice president and Director National Resilience, Response and Recovery Programs for The LiRo Group.