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Emergency Management Profession Needs Diversity to Adapt

Without a workforce and leaders who have those skill sets and an understanding of diverse communities, emergency managers won’t be able to reach their potential in mitigating the hazards that they face.

Charles Sharp, CEO of the Black Emergency Managers Association International.
Charles Sharp is CEO of the Black Emergency Managers Association, which aims to increase diversity in the field.
David Kidd/e.Republic
Emergency management has traditionally been a white man’s profession, following a typical progression from military officer, law enforcement officer or firefighter or fire chief to emergency manager. That is beginning to change, and it needs to for the profession to truly serve communities affected by the trend of more frequent and intense disasters.

As the nation’s emergency managers grapple with climate change and the increasing fallout, such as more severe storms that put more people, especially those in vulnerable neighborhoods, at risk, they must adapt, using new skill sets and understanding those vulnerable communities.

Without a workforce and leaders who have those skill sets and an understanding of diverse communities, emergency managers won’t be able to reach their potential in mitigating the hazards that they face.

“Here’s the truth of it,” said Chauncia Willis, co-founder of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. “We know that the scope of disasters is increasing and they are projected to impact the most vulnerable communities, so we need people from those communities to address the ways to prepare messages, to engage those communities, and so it makes sense to be more diverse in our populations of emergency managers.”

Willis said she had seen statistics that indicated that anywhere from 61 percent to 80 percent of the personnel in emergency management-related positions are white males, but that those numbers are not collected and difficult to know for sure.

Representation from non-whites matters, not just because it’s the right thing to do, Willis said, but because without it there can’t be equal representation of all communities and that limits how productive emergency managers can be in addressing some vulnerable communities. “The lack of diversity inhibits the production of equity,” she said.

From her perspective as a research associate at the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colo., Nnenia Marie Campbell sees improvement in the numbers of people of color in emergency management. “I absolutely think there have been improvements in both the emergency management and disaster-related fields, more broadly,” she said.

Others agree but say that those positions are too few and are lower-level positions without the ability to affect change in the profession thus far. Those few people of color in positions within emergency management have to find their way to decision-making roles to affect the change necessary for vulnerable communities to be equitably represented during disasters in many locales.

“The first step is looking at internal processes and thinking about this in terms of historical context,” Marie Campbell said. “It’s not just an issue of ‘racist policies are in the past and people need to catch up,’ it’s that there are systemic race issues reflected in everyday decision-making and practices.”

Marie Campbell said minorities have often been outside of the professional networks where professional advancement can be enhanced and suffer for it in the workplace. “So how do we bring more people into the field who are already there but don’t have opportunities to advance?”

Marie Campbell said it’s time to stop looking at inclusion as an issue of fairness and begin to address it from a skill set standpoint. “That’s a big part of this, the skill set is changing and innovation is absolutely necessary so that there’s a perspective shift,” she said. “Other industries have taught us that to innovate, to continue to advance you have to bring in diverse perspectives and experiences and that’s also true in emergency management.”

The traditional emergency manager was hired from an outdated set of requirements and skill sets that still need to be updated in many jurisdictions. Just having military, law enforcement or fire experience isn’t enough to land a job as an emergency manager today, where “soft skills” such as communication, case management, and the ability to manage a budget are necessary.

And although more people of color are getting positions in emergency management, that “old network” is still alive and well, preventing more diversity.

“What prevents a lot of people from entering the field at higher rates is, one, an opportunity to receive an internship, and two, when positions are open people tend to hire people who look like them,” Willis said.

She said it would help if the hiring was done on the basis of the needed skill set, the soft skills, and not so much on the traditional set of requirements like being in the military or law enforcement.

Charles Sharp, climate fellow at Cornell University and CEO of the Black Emergency Managers Association International, urges members and potential emergency management professionals to improve their skill sets to match the evolving profession. “When it comes to professional growth, I’m emphasizing each one should be increasing their professional growth, increase your skill sets,” he said.

The increase in the number of colleges and universities offering emergency management and homeland security degrees is another avenue for potential emergency management professionals. The Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management has begun partnering with community colleges to create courses that will allow people of color to get a two-year degree that will be specific to emergency management and help get these students noticed.

“We know that two-thirds of people of color who are going to college are going to start with community college,” Willis said. “We’re creating courses specifically for community colleges that will allow people of color to be able to get a two-year degree and go right into service within the field.”

Willis hopes the organization will soon develop partnerships with businesses, such as the Walmarts and Amazons of the world, to generate internships and apprenticeships.