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

Another challenge is being considered an essential part of a community’s “public safety fabric,” as Graff called it. She said the profession has done much of its own marketing through the years — everyone knows what a fire department does, but it has taken time for people to realize that communities also need emergency management offices. The Loma Prieta earthquake made this clear in Washington state, and each state and locality — depending on its geography and critical infrastructure must look into how to prevent and respond to man-made and natural threats.

But there is one thing everyone can agree on: Emergency management as a profession and philosophy has advanced since the 1950s. A more defined career path is being created for the future work force, which is making the profession more diverse both in terms of the people who work in it and their backgrounds.

How do I get into emergency management?

The following are tips and advice from leaders at different levels of government.

Barb Graff, director, Seattle Office of Emergency Management: Volunteer and take advantage of free training. “No. 1, the agency gets unpaid labor, but you, by volunteering, get invaluable experience and contacts. There’s also now a wealth of training that you can take free online through the independent study courses offered by the Emergency Management Institute. Finally, more and more emergency management programs open their doors during training and exercises. They need role players, simulators, evaluators and such, and volunteering to help with those makes you more of a known commodity.”

Nancy Dragani, executive director, Ohio Emergency Management Agency:
Be open to all opportunities. Dragani said none of the people who work for her broke into the field right off the bat — one woman started as a dispatcher with the highway patrol, and another worker took a temporary job as a disaster relief grant employee, and then moved up through the program’s ranks. “All of them took what could be considered neutral steps or side steps to get into the field. They recognized that those might be necessary to achieve their long-term goal of getting into the emergency management career.”

Nancy Ward, administrator, FEMA Region IX:
Identify your focus. There are numerous opportunities at the local, state and federal levels, and many agencies like public health, have a nexus to emergency management. “I think it takes a little bit of inquiry into really what is a person, where do they see their skills and abilities applying, and what do they want to do in the arena of emergency management.”

Networking and Job Development for Women

There are many organizations that bring together and educate the nation’s emergency managers. Here are three that cater to women:

The Emergency Management Professional Organization for Women’s Enrichment (EMPOWER) is a nonprofit started in 2005 to “help women advance their careers through networking, mentoring and promoting educational opportunities in the field of emergency management,” according to its website, EMPOWER hosts webinars and speaker sessions, and piggybacks on national conferences by having networking sessions while they’re ongoing, said Kirby Felts, who chairs the organization’s board of directors.

She said EMPOWER also holds a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) study circle, a monthly preparation session done via conference call that’s sponsored by the International Association of Emergency Managers. “We talk through different parts of the application package and share ideas on interpretation of the questions and what they’re asking for,” Felts said. About three times during the study cycle, a CEM commissioner will answer questions and help participants through the process.

The International Network of Women in Emergency Management connects leaders in government, the private sector, nonprofits, professional associations and community- and faith-based organizations. Participants are kept up-to-date through conference calls and a LinkedIn group. According to the organization’s website,, it’s “comprised of a network of international men and women leaders with a passion to create global emergency management systems and partnerships, which promote safer, resilient, sustainable, and prepared, diverse communities and elevate the status of women.”

Another organization, Women in Homeland Security (WHS), is a nonprofit that was founded in 2009 and has more than 800 public- and private-sector members. “Through monthly meetings, book club, WHS University and the group’s charity work, Women in Homeland Security fosters a collaborative environment for homeland security professionals to improve our nation’s security and intelligence on critical homeland security topics confronting the nation,” according to the website,

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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