The Curriculum

Emergency management education has evolved but faces hurdles.

by Valerie Lucus-McEwen / January 31, 2017

In the beginning, there was civil defense, born out of World War II and the Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s. The Corps of Engineers was building dams for flood control, and President Dwight Eisenhower pushed the Interstate Highway System through Congress. Local civil defense agencies continued to teach training from WWII, like first aid, fire safety, and search and rescue, as well as new training like duck and cover, living in a bomb shelter and how to do a simple radiation survey. At the urging of state governors, President Jimmy Carter signed the Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978, creating FEMA and shifting disaster relief efforts to one federal-level agency.

Training was a high priority in the new agency, although not all the agencies incorporated into FEMA had existing public training programs. After selecting the current training site at Emmitsburg, Md., in 1980, training was established for civil defense and fire courses. The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) was established and began offering onsite training and limited “mail-order” training for the states. Later, when the technology became available, much of that training was put online. 

The First
In 1983, the first quasi-higher education program was created at the University of North Texas (then called North Texas State University) when FEMA’s Region 6 proposed a partnership with the university to help train responders. There was a need for more extensively trained personnel to staff federal, state and local levels. The courses taught were considered training rather than education, and were composed of certificate courses from EMI’s catalog, but it helped lay the groundwork for a professional curriculum. “Initially the program was undertaken to improve disaster response, but also to address the issue of an aging civil defense population who’d learned their roles through trial and error,” said David McEntire, dean of Aviation Science and Public Services at Utah Valley University.

By 1994, there were four such programs in the U.S., each using the FEMA material as its subject matter. John McKay, who was the director of EMI at that time, was concerned about the limited number of people who could be trained.

“They were training 5,000 responders a year and turning 5,000 away,” said Kay Goss, the associate director of FEMA training at that time.

McKay had a suggestion. The idea was to expand FEMA’s reach through college and university campuses — similar to what was being done at the University of North Texas — by convincing them to offer professional degree programs to increase the opportunities for emergency management education.

The triad of emergency management professionalism is experience, training and education. There is a difference between training (the how) and education (the why). The new FEMA Higher Education Program was created to build a profession based on academic principles and standards.

The goal of FEMA’s higher education program was to bring together universities that were beginning to or interested in developing emergency management education through degree programs. To help, then-Director Wayne Blanchard and FEMA contracted with professors to develop college courses “ready to teach.” In 1997, FEMA began hosting an annual Higher Education Symposium to bring all interested parties — including practitioners — together. The attendance that first year was about 80. In 2016, it was 260.

Emergency management might have grown out of civil defense, but it grew up with other academic disciplines. “We still don’t have the full recognition we need as a discipline and profession, although we’ve made a lot of progress,” McEntire said.

Other disciplines, like sociology or geography, question emergency management as a separate discipline. Emergency management programs are rarely standalone departments, are often under a different department, like criminal justice or fire science, and have a small faculty. “It is often difficult to be heard and have concerns implemented,” said McEntire.

In this way, the academic experience mirrors real life, where many emergency management agencies in state and local government programs are struggling with an identity and aren’t heard until after the next disaster. “It is important where the role of emergency management is in the structure of an organization,” Blanchard said. Once relegated into a secondary role — primarily in public safety — more and more emergency managers are being hired into, or relocated to, a more primary role. Standalone departments are becoming more common in the real world and academia, but the profession has a long way to go.

Perceived need, political pressure and the latest events have driven the emergency management academic curriculum, just as they drive programs in the real world. “I always say we are more prepared for the most recent disaster,” Goss said. 9/11 and the formation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002 pulled multiple departments, including FEMA, into one giant agency. With the rest of DHS, FEMA turned its emphasis to terrorism almost to the exclusion of its all-hazard base. That narrow focus existed until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the Gulf Coast was devastated.

Since then, FEMA and DHS have coexisted, often uncomfortably. This divide is evident in academia where there are differing opinions about incorporating homeland security topics into an emergency management curriculum. On one side of the debate is Daryl Spiewak, an independent consultant from Waco, Texas. “I think homeland security should be separate from emergency management; the focus is not the same. Homeland security is focused on intelligence, not consequence management. Emergency management is consequence management.”

On the other hand, McEntire would like to find a balance. “I think there needs to be a close relationship with homeland security, and I’m comfortable with a little fuzziness there. Some people aren’t,” he said. “There are some elements that are very different, but there is an overlap and we have to recognize that. It’s a mistake to have them be too separate.”

Emergency management education must also recognize its interdisciplinary roots. It came from multiple fields, such as sociology and public administration, and we’re seeing more professional degrees in emergency management with concentrations or minors in those fields. In a different and interesting trend, there are degrees in those other disciplines with concentrations or minors in emergency management topics. For example, an environmental science degree with a focus on mitigation, or a geography degree with a focus on GIS or hazard analysis.

“We will never see the end of disasters,” Goss said. “But we can create a newfound sensitivity or knowledge by integrating an emergency management course of some kind in every academic discipline to get them to take even one course in their academic career.”

Lacking Consistency
There are certainly more opportunities for students these days in emergency management higher education. According to the college list on FEMA’s higher ed website, there are almost 300 campuses in all but four states (Maine, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming) offering some form of higher education certificates or degrees, including three Ph.D. programs. What started out as certificates using FEMA-created courses has evolved into full-blown degree programs, concentrations and minors.

But there’s no consistency in what is being taught from one school to another, or even from one level to another. “Courses are scattered across the spectrum,” Spiewak said. There is no structure about what to teach, and schools are teaching the same thing at different levels. For example, a basic emergency management principles course is taught at the associate’s level in one school and the bachelor’s or master’s level at another. “What is really needed is some form of accreditation of those programs to ensure some uniformity.”

FEMA supports this consistency by contracting with different individuals and groups to develop processes like standards and core competencies. To be successful, these new ideas and ideals have to be picked up and used by academia in developing their programs — which means academia must recognize its responsibility to lead rather than follow.

“The main focus of emergency management education is still to get a job as an emergency manager,” Spiewak said. While there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a degree in emergency management can help someone get into the field, it’s unclear whether higher education programs are keeping up with the increasing knowledge necessary to be successful. Many academic emergency management education programs still have a bias and focus on operations, but lag behind the real world in teaching about a lot of the black swan events and issues like climate change. 

“If they are reactive and not proactive, they are doomed to stay behind the curve in terms of enrollment and the needs of students,” said Carol Cwiak, associate professor of emergency management at North Dakota State University. “We don’t have the luxury of being static in education,” she added.

Emergency management is one of the most difficult areas to teach because it is so dynamic. While we can “hang our hat on what we know for sure” and teach the core elements, Cwiak said, we still need programs that teach the complexity of emergency management, and recognize and incorporate the issues that are plaguing real-world emergency managers. 

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