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How Emergency Management Is Changing (For the Better)

Some of the pre-eminent women in emergency management share how they got into the field and how it’s evolved since the civil defense days.

by / October 3, 2011
Nancy Ward surveys storm damage in Kentucky as FEMA's acting administrator in 2009. Photo courtesy of Andrea Booher/FEMA Andrea Booher/FEMA

Like all professions, emergency management has evolved throughout the years to become what it is today — a defined field of work that’s paving a career path for future employees. The modern concept of emergency management has grown from the civil defense days — when in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a federal office to protect civilians and respond to community needs in wartime. As state and local governments saw the need for programs focusing on emergency management, veterans and retired first responders were the go-to candidates to fill these positions.

Emergency management has had its share of challenges as people — from government and the public — sought to understand what it is and why it’s important. Even though historically there has always been some aspect of emergency management in the United States, hurricanes and earthquakes in the late 1960s and early ’70s were catalysts behind legislation and an increased focus on natural disasters. Then in 1979, FEMA was created by presidential order, and people saw the likenesses between the agency and civil defense. There also was a shift toward focusing on all hazards.

Since the profession was traditionally filled with first responders and veterans, it was a male-dominated field, but that’s changing, and programs are developing to educate the work force’s next generation.

A survey by the Emergency Management Professional Organization for Women’s Enrichment (EMPOWER) from 2006 showed that the field is evolving to include a greater percentage of women — but the employment growth is slow. Of the 202 respondents (71 percent of which were female), only 10 percent had more than a decade of experience. The majority of respondents, 35 percent, had fewer than five years’ experience.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s annual employee survey also shows similar numbers — more women work for the department, but change isn’t happening quickly. Survey results indicated that in 2007, 32 percent of the department’s employees were women; in 2010, 37.5 percent were female.

A look at some of the pre-eminent women working in emergency management roles provides insight into how they got into the field, positive changes they’ve seen and what’s in store for the future.

Undefined Career Paths

Aside from the traditional method of filling emergency management roles with second-career professionals, another common way people got into the field was by accident. “We are trending away from people, like me, who backed into the field,” said Nancy Dragani, executive director of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, who began her career as a disc jockey with Armed Forces radio and joined the National Guard when she got off active duty. Dragani spent time at a local agency before going to Ohio Emergency Management as a public information officer.

Nancy Dragani, executive director, Ohio Emergency Management Agency. Photo by Larry Hamill

“Like most people in my generation, I really backed into it; it wasn’t something that I intentionally went to school for or wanted to be,” she said. “It simply was something that as I learned about it, interested me, so I began looking for opportunities to get into the field.”

Although Dragani eased into the position as the state’s director, her background gave her a unique view into the role. Working in public affairs, she was required to know about all of the agency’s functions. And before leading the agency, she also served as director of operations. She’s by no means the only person who took an indirect route into emergency management.

Nancy Ward, administrator of FEMA Region IX, began her career working in California’s Department of Social Services for 15 years. After federal disaster declarations in the state, she volunteered with a grant program that provided assistance to families and individuals affected by a disaster. “I did that in 1983 and just loved what I got to do in terms of going out to recovery centers and talking to disaster survivors about our program and what we could help them with,” she said. “I just fell in love with it.”

Ward volunteered after every disaster and eventually was running the program. From there she moved to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services where she oversaw operations, individual assistance and recovery programs. Ward joined FEMA in 2000 as the response and recovery division director for Region IX — which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and five U.S. territories — and became the regional administrator in 2006.

“I think that women migrate toward these kinds of jobs, because they have an innate characteristic that they want to help,” she said.

The traditional way of local-level employment also mimics Dragani’s and Ward’s stories. Barb Graff began working in the Bellevue, Wash., city manager’s office in 1983, and following the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, the city created an emergency management program. Although Loma Prieta struck Northern California, Graff said it was a “seminal incident” that started many programs in the Pacific Northwest. “I had already declared to the city manager that I was ripe for a new opportunity,” she said, “so the change knocked on my door when we created the first-ever emergency management program.”

Graff stayed in that role for 15 years before moving to Seattle, where she has directed the city’s Emergency Management Office since 2005.

Although these are just a few examples of how people traditionally started working in emergency management, they represent the majority of the field — that is until changes within the last decade opened new doors for career seekers.

So Long Good Old Boys’ Club

Emergency management has been called the “good old boys’ club,” which can be attributed to the field’s tradition of hiring from the military and first responders. That’s not to say that women aren’t included, but by default, the roles have been primarily filled by men.

Claire Rubin, who has held various roles in emergency management and homeland security over the last 33 years and now works as a consultant, said that in the late 1970s and early ’80s, it was hard to find other women working in the field. She said that Susan Tubbesing, the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center director at the time, wanted to have women and minorities attend the center’s annual conference. Tubbesing would call Rubin to inquire about women she knew in the field to increase the event’s diversity. “It definitely required an effort to find them,” Rubin said. “They just weren’t working in the field, or if they were, they were mostly much younger and therefore not in positions of enormous responsibility yet, because we were working our way in.”

That sentiment is echoed by others. Marg Verbeek, an associate with Good Harbor Consulting and past president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, said that when she attended conferences 20 years ago that brought together as many as 500 participants, only a handful of women were present. And even today, when it comes to high-level roles, there are few women heading state offices. During Ellen Gordon’s time as administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management office from 1986 to 2004, she said there were never more than three women in similar roles nationwide. That number hasn’t increased drastically since then. Gordon said there are now five females who are state directors.

Barb Graff, director, Seattle Office of Emergency Management. Photo by John Gragen

Emergency management’s civil defense roots contribute to the lack of diversity. “When I first got into [the field], it was very male-dominated, and of the men in the field, it was very military-dominated,” Graff said. “I think that still continues to some extent at the state level, but I have seen a big change here in Washington. I’ve seen many more women at conferences, professional development opportunities and much more networking. So I think it’s evened out quite a bit.”

Another contributor is the nation’s tradition of hiring first responders pursuing second careers in emergency management. In some instances, it’s still a driving factor. “There definitely is a group of folks in emergency management who feel if you have not been a true first responder — meaning police, fire, [emergency medical services] — that maybe you don’t really know how it all works,” said Kirby Felts, assistant director of the University of Virginia’s Emergency Preparedness Office. “I would argue that. I think that I could be a good emergency manager without having to respond on scene to deal with and be in the heat of the moment.”

Graff pointed out that these issues aren’t unique to emergency management and noted that “being a relatively young field, it’s had to learn the hard sexist lessons that every other profession has had to learn.”

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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