No two career paths are alike in emergency management, but there are several ways to get into the field.
As an emergency manager in my mid-20s, the question I get asked most often by my peers when talking about my profession is how I got involved. More specifically they ask how they could get involved and have a job similar to mine. I wish I had a short, concise answer like my friends who are doctors, lawyers or information technology professionals, but I don’t. Few will disagree that emergency management is a tough field to get involved in, and it seems no two career paths are alike.
Emergency management is not an advertised track or degree at most universities and no high school or college guidance counselor even mentioned it to me as a career field. This is despite having done my undergraduate studies at one of the finest public universities in the county; a school with top-tier fire and police training centers, and a Tier 1 Urban Areas Security Initiative region only two hours north of the campus. No emergency managers were ever at any career fair I attended, and none of my professors even mentioned such a field existed.
As with most people working in emergency management, I got involved in the field through a series of fortunate events, mostly by being at the right place at the right time. I had worked as a lifeguard during the summer after my college freshman year and enjoyed the work enough that I decided to become an emergency medical technician (EMT), enrolling in the EMT-Basic course at the local community college. At the time I was an economics major and had no previous interest in pursuing out-of-hospital medicine as a career, but the course sounded interesting and built upon what I had learned as a lifeguard. Three months later, I was a newly minted EMT-Basic and shortly thereafter, enrolled in a paramedic program.
While studying to be a paramedic and attending school full time, I also began working for the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team (IMERT). IMERT is a state-based medical team similar to a Disaster Medical Assistance Team although with slightly more focus on nursing and longer term care. Working for IMERT was an excellent experience in disaster medicine and response, showing how the Incident Command System operated and the type of work required for managing mass care operations. It was my first taste and experience with the Incident Command System and responding to major disasters and full-scale exercises.
While waiting for transportation home after responding to an ice storm, IMERT’s commander pulled me aside and asked if I had thought of a career. I told him that I was thinking of working as a paramedic for a few years, then maybe getting my registered nurse license or becoming a physician’s assistant. He asked if I had considered being an emergency manager, and I responded that I wasn’t quite sure what exactly emergency managers did. He went on to explain the general roles and responsibilities of the profession and suggested I look at a few master’s degree programs including ones at the Naval Postgraduate School, North Dakota State University and University of North Texas.
That evening I did an Internet search on emergency management master’s programs. I found the FEMA Higher Education Program’s website and began looking at different schools that offered master’s degrees. What surprised me was that very few catered to people coming straight out of undergraduate programs. Instead, almost all were online only or some type of online hybrid geared more toward working professionals returning to school. Others were a Master of Public Administration or similar degrees that had two or three classes in emergency management as a “concentration.” None of these were what I was looking for. I wanted a degree in emergency management from a school where I could regularly attend class and meet face-to-face with highly credentialed professors. In other words, a traditional master’s program. I had taken online classes before and found that I absorbed far less information than though discussion and interaction. Since I was about to pay tens of thousands of dollars of my own money for a degree, I wanted the most “bang for my buck.”
These criteria narrowed down the choices to just a handful of schools. My selection today would be better as more schools have started traditional in-person master’s programs in emergency management, but my choices in late 2007 were limited. I opted for George Washington University’s (GWU) Engineering Management and Systems Engineering Master’s degree with a concentration in Crisis, Emergency and Risk Management, as the systems engineering-focused approach appealed to me, as did the excellent Washington, D.C., job market.
I moved to Washington, D.C., in May 2008 and began my classes a few weeks later. By September of that year, I had found a job working for the National Association of County and City Health Officials Public Health Preparedness Team supporting the Medical Reserve Corps Program. The reason I was hired though was not because I was enrolled in George Washington University’s program, but rather my past involvement with IMERT and experience as a paramedic. Still, it was my first job in the emergency management field, and my first experience with a national-scale disaster as H1N1 became the leading public health concern less than a year after I was hired. Once I had a master’s degree and some experience, finding jobs became significantly easier as I had more recognizable and applicable skill sets.
The fact remains though, getting my foot in the door was difficult, and I went about it in a very indirect manner. My bachelor’s degree is in political science with just one class related to emergency management. I spent more than three years working as an EMT and paramedic for local and state emergency response organizations to build up a strong enough resume so I could enter into a master’s program. I ended up working full time and taking no fewer than four, three-hour classes per week throughout most of my master’s program as a way to jump-start my career.
While I could preach that hard work pays off, that is not the point of this article. The challenge remains for many people in the Generation Y age group (roughly those currently in their late teens or 20s) to both enter the emergency management field and have their skills recognized. It is also difficult for emergency management agencies or organizations to competitively attract some of the best and brightest students as many of these soon-to-be or recent grads are being presented with salary offers from companies and industries of all types, often being funneled away from the field. The fact is a part-time job or $30,000 per year entry-level salary does not entice a student with $50,000 or more in college loans.
The term sustainability gets thrown around a lot in government services circles. If emergency management as a profession wants to be sustainable in an increasingly competitive and global job market, the process of entering the field needs to be refined and streamlined, with more focus on a direct-from-college approach that more-established professional fields currently rely on. In the short term though, I cannot emphasize enough the need to focus on higher education. The work that people such as Wayne Blanchard, Barbara Johnson and all of the emergency management academic program directors have done for the FEMA Higher Education Program is second to none. If it were not for their efforts, I would not be writing this article nor would I be working in the emergency management field.
Even so, there is still a long road ahead. There are still very few “top 100” colleges and universities in the nation (according to U.S. News and World Report) with degree programs in emergency management. While this does not mean collegiate emergency management programs are not rigorous and well delivered, it does result in many of the students attending the schools perceived to be the best in the country not being exposed to emergency management as a career field through their advisers or professors.
For those students such as myself who leave their bachelor’s programs with a degree in something other than emergency management, or for those wishing to continue emergency management studies, there is still a deficit of options for traditional master’s and Ph.D. degrees in emergency management. Every profession needs these people, as many go on to be the researchers and high-level thinkers of the industry.
Most of all though, it is the responsibility of emergency managers to engage high school and college students through job fairs, presentations and discussions on what it is that emergency managers do. Without an increasing demand for rigorous emergency management education, the industry cannot produce the advocates it needs for expanding programs and raising standards.
I know my experience to get involved in the emergency management field is somewhat unique, but that is not a good thing. I was lucky enough to forge my own path through the advice of those around me, but for every person like me, there are many more who were discouraged by the difficulty of getting involved in the field. That’s bad news for our profession and something all of us need to work on as part of our professional responsibilities.
Janusz Wasiolek is an emergency manager residing in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.