Internship Programs Develop the Next Generation of Emergency Managers

A look into three internship programs that provide hands-on experience to emergency management students.

by / May 9, 2012
Students at the University of North Texas participate in an emergency management exercise. Photo courtesy of Luis Tapia Luis Tapia/University of North Texas

“How do I get into emergency management?” would likely top a frequently asked questions guide to the industry. With the increase in emergency management and homeland security higher education programs, the number and availability of internship programs for those students also has ramped up.

As organizations seek to utilize interns and develop programs to work with students, it can be helpful to know about what other agencies are doing. Here is a look at three internship programs in the U.S.

University Intern Program Provides Hands-On Learning

At the University of North Texas, Emergency Management Coordinator Luis Tapia has been utilizing the services of undergraduate and graduate students for almost four years.

“I incorporate interns into everything that I do and everything that I am tasked with by my supervisors so that they can get a real sense of what it’s like to be an emergency management coordinator and truly understand ‘other duties as assigned,’” he said.

Tapia works with students who are pursuing emergency management and public administration degrees at the university. By the end of the internship, his goal is to have exposed the students to as many emergency management concepts as possible so that they are asking more questions at the end of the internship than they were at the beginning. “At the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Tapia said.

In addition to being incorporated into Tapia’s tasks and responsibilities, the students take independent study courses on exercises; interview the university’s internal and external stakeholders; and develop a Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program-compliant tabletop exercise.

At the end of the internship, Tapia facilitates the tabletop exercise while the student watches as his or her hard work is tested. “When it comes to students applying what they learned as they pursue a degree program in emergency management, what better applied setting than developing a tabletop exercise, which may be the first task they have once they are hired as a new emergency management professional.”

He also finishes the program by offering students the chance to participate in a mock interview for an emergency management job.

For agencies and organizations that are interested in starting an internship program, Tapia recommends setting expectations early on with the student about what will be achieved during the internship. “The more structure that you have for a student intern, the more likely they are to succeed,” he said.

Florida Hires Intern Coordinator

The Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) is preparing to hire its first higher education/intern coordinator who will act as a liaison with universities, students and counties. For the past three years, Laura Herbert, the lead mitigation planner for FDEM, has been supervising interns, but the new position will provide a dedicated resource to place interns in emergency management offices throughout the state. “We want to be able to help counties even if they have limited staffing and can’t manage an intern,” Herbert said.

The intern coordinator will help with the paperwork required for internships as well as with other aspects of the program so that counties can utilize student resources. “We want to facilitate as much as we can to help the counties since there have been a lot of budget cuts and people are pretty tight on staff, as well as foster the next generation of emergency managers,” she said.

Although the coordinator position is new, the state has already been helping to place interns in its offices and with the counties. Local governments can send FDEM a scope of the work they are looking to accomplish with an intern and the state tries to find interns who are qualified for and interested in those duties. The information also is posted on the division’s website.

In addition to helping local offices get interns for their projects, Herbert has been placing interns in Florida counties to help with local mitigation strategies. Through funding from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and a partnership with Florida State University, 17 counties received interns to help with local mitigation strategies. The interns worked 40 hours a week for 13 weeks over the summer and were paid.

“We just really want to foster a learning environment and hopefully be able to have some of these interns be ready to take positions in Florida and move emergency management forward,” Herbert said.

Massachusetts Town Benefits From Interns

After attending a meeting for Massachusetts’ emergency management directors and watching students present about the internship process, Brian Gallant wanted to implement an internship program in his office. As director of the Sandwich, Mass., Office of Emergency Management, Gallant contacted the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, got a list of interested students, selected two and “the rest was history,” he said. The office’s first emergency management interns worked during the fall 2011 semester, and at the end of April he was interviewing more students to be interns over the summer.

For small towns like Sandwich, which has a population of about 20,000, volunteers can be an invaluable resource.

“We’re a volunteer agency, they are unfunded positions and these kids are beating our doors down and are eager to do it,” Gallant said.

The first interns helped with three main projects: updating plans by combining the flood and prehazard mitigation plans into one document, entering information into a new statewide resource management system and community outreach.

Sandwich is applying to become a StormReady Community — a preparedness program that’s sponsored by the National Weather Service — and one of the requirements is completing three outreach seminars to a variety of groups. The original plan had been for the interns to develop the presentation and the office staff would present it, but Gallant said the interns were eager to present it themselves.

And even after the first two students completed the internship program, they didn’t want to stop working with the office. Gallant said long after the process was complete, one of the interns was still offering to help the office and working on projects.

“They were excellent,” he said. “I can’t say enough about them — they were great.”

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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