The Making of a Profession

Standardization, training, certification and recognition are all part of increasing professionalization.

by David Raths / January 26, 2017
Cal OES.

Looking back 20 years, there were fewer people with emergency management titles and less clearly defined emergency management organizational structures. There were also fewer certification and training programs for emergency managers.

The profession has evolved along with people’s understanding that crisis management and the need to prepare for disasters is critical, said California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci. The public, elected officials and private-sector CEOs started to grasp that it was a necessity to understand what risks exist and the challenges a region could face and develop a plan to move forward, he added.

Events such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina served as exclamation points. “Here in California, we recognized it long before the rest of the nation,” Ghilarducci stressed. “We had the Loma Prieta earthquake, the L.A. riots and the Oakland Hills fire — all catastrophic events that forced us to build a standardized emergency management infrastructure that talked about standards and resource coordination.” To get legislation passed and get the capability put in place, legislators and others had to have a good understanding of how important emergency management was, he said.

But he said it took Hurricane Katrina to remind politicians what it looks like if you do not have a good emergency management system in place. “What they saw was not pretty,” Ghilarducci said. “Everybody recognized it right away, and I think that was the most defining moment in our country in modern times, to reinforce the need to focus on an emergency management profession. Both CEOs and elected leaders recognized that the difference between an effective response and a poor one is whether you have a good emergency manager and a plan. Those are the watersheds that moved us forward.”

Rob Dale, a regional planner in the Ingham County, Mich., Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, got into the field through meteorology. When he first came into contact with emergency management in the early 1990s, he recalled, it wasn’t very professional. He remembers meeting with a local emergency manager. “I told him we had a tornado warning in the next county and asked him what he wanted me to do. He said, ‘Double-check your watch, because it is after 5 o’clock and I am done for the day.’ So I stayed out of emergency management then and got involved later. We weren’t as professional then. There were a lot of brothers of mayors in these positions.”

The 9/11 attacks changed emergency management because it brought increased funding, a focus on terrorism, and requirements for accountability and collaboration. “For a lot of two- and three-person operations, those second and third staffers are funded because of 9/11,” Dale said. 
With that funding came requirements for counties to work together, he said. “That makes sense on so many levels. You don’t need to have equipment used once every three years in two neighboring counties.” But in those federal funding streams there has been a strong emphasis on terrorism prevention and less on natural disasters. “Our biggest issues are tornadoes and flooding. With climate change, those are only going to grow with time.”

Ghilarducci agrees with Dale that by focusing too narrowly on the threat of terrorism, the federal government dropped the ball between 9/11 and Katrina. “Emergency management is an all-hazards construct, and after 9/11, everything was focused on a single hazard and that was terrorism. Yes, they facilitated and funded the technology to ensure for local, state and federal collaboration across jurisdictional and governmental levels, but it was in the context of one hazard. When Katrina hit, they realized they had done a disservice to the country and we needed to go back and focus on all hazards.”

Glen Woodbury is director of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He served as the director of the Emergency Management Division for Washington state from 1998 through 2004 and as president of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from 2002 to 2003.

Within NEMA, he said, there have been talks about the changing nature of emergency management and how to better professionalize it. Some people argue that emergency managers should resist expanding the scope of their role. “But generally the emergency managers I work with aren’t of that ilk. Because of the skills and culture of emergency management, things that don’t fit well in somebody else’s box get handed to emergency management,” said Woodbury. “Or emergency managers see gaps in the response or policy to some event going on that another discipline may not see.”

One clear example of that phenomenon was when California Gov. Jerry Brown chose Ghilarducci to head a drought task force in 2013. “I was at first a little surprised,” Ghilarducci recalled. “Frankly, I don’t have the expertise in water like we have in our Department of Water Resources, but the governor said this isn’t an issue of water; this is a crisis management issue. He recognized from his previous time as governor, when they had drought before, that this drought was going to have a series of cascading impacts that would clearly be emergency management-related. Because it was a crisis, they needed a crisis manager to navigate through the bureaucracy to ensure we were moving in an effective, collaborative way.”

One of the first things Ghilarducci did was get all the county emergency managers on the phone. “I would say half thought it wasn’t an emergency management construct. Five years later, from what we learned about the impact and results of the drought, there is not one of the emergency managers in the state saying this is not an emergency management issue. It has resulted in a series of events that affected the local economy and affected the way public safety is ensured at the local level and requires out-of-the-box thinking for issues such as emergency housing, food supplies and water deliveries.”

The same thing happened when there was a surge of children coming across the border, Woodbury said. “That is not an emergency management issue, except when the gap hits the skills of emergency managers. We need to shelter people. Well, who does that? Emergency managers. We need to feed displaced people. Who does that well? Emergency managers do that well.”
Public health crises often require emergency management intervention or assistance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments know the epidemiology and how to work with the medical community, but it is not within their traditional role to bring in all the different agencies and disciplines to deal with something affecting a region on a broader scale.
In 2003, Woodbury had to deal with mad cow disease in Washington state. “It was clearly a public health and/or agricultural emergency, but it went beyond both of their traditional scopes,” he said. “So somebody asked who could pull this together, and they turned to emergency management. It involved more than one discipline and involved uncertainty and affected public health, security and safety.”

Bryan Koon has served as the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management since February 2011. Previously he worked for five years as operations manager and director of emergency management for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. He said cooperation with other agencies is key to the success of his office.

“We work hard to have regular meetings and stay abreast of what they are doing,” he said. “I work with other agencies such as agriculture and transportation to make things happen more quickly. The administration can issue executive orders to help with evacuations and resupply of gasoline and food.”

In certain situations, you may not have the primary responsibility, he said, but your ability to make the entire situation go more smoothly is paramount. “We did that with the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando this summer. Emergency management did not have the lead on that. However, we backed up the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and helped provide all the logistical support and personnel services they needed to support that situation. You didn’t see us on the news; you didn’t see me in press conferences, but we were there to make sure mobile command vehicles were in place. All the things going on in the background were happening. So those partnerships with other agencies are extremely important.”

Although emergency management education programs existed 20 years ago, they were still evolving into the multi-hazard approach that exists today. “Many of the people working in emergency management were second careerists. They came from somewhere else. That has changed over the years,” Woodbury said. “Training and education have become more sophisticated, accepted and required.” You can’t just walk into a senior-level management job or a technical job without some demonstrated training and education. Before, someone might have experience doing planning for the Army, and that was good enough. It became more targeted and deliberate. “Certification also has a role,” he said.

Any profession, Woodbury noted, needs a training and education base and certification. It needs some type of professional organization that helps guide the profession forward, and it needs a body of knowledge. Emergency management is progressing along each of those at various rates, he believes. Certification is an example. The International Association of Emergency Managers is the sponsor for the Certified Emergency Manager program. It is the only widely accepted certification for the profession, yet not everybody recognizes it or agrees with what it evaluates, he said.

California, Ghilarducci said, is implementing a credentialing program that requires passing a series of courses and meeting a standard. “We are tying that to performance measures and pushing it out to local governments,” he said. If you look at the state’s 58 counties and 2,000 cities today, the training and certification is all over the map. “But this effort will be to standardize as much as possible. You have to back it up with funding and training. That is the future.”

Another important element to the growth of the profession is external recognition from other professions. Today fire and police executives recognize emergency management as a distinct entity, not as an appendage to a fire department, and to a large degree it is because of the growth in training, reputation, certification and education.

 There also has been huge growth in the number of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in emergency management. “There were no emergency programs in higher education two decades ago,” Woodbury said. The growth has happened organically because of demand and the evolution of the position. Organizations realize they need to hire people with different skill sets than people they get from the military or firefighters. There started to become a demand for undergraduate programs. Universities saw demand in the late 1990s, and the number of programs grew from zero to around 100, he added.

Degrees in the field are important to professionalization because they bring in
new ideas, Woodbury said, especially graduate degrees because these are the people who question past practices and doctrine in
positive ways.

Ghilarducci said it is great that there are so many new emergency management programs in higher education, “but the truth is that some are spotty. A lot of them are online. You don’t know what you are getting. When you look at the instructors or faculty, who are they? There are some good programs, but right now if you get a degree in emergency management, there is no standardization,” he said. “We look at people who apply and have a bachelor’s in emergency management, but when you interview them, they may not know the first thing about emergency management. Once we set that standard, then the universities will pick up on that and you will get standardization across the country.”

When asked what skill sets are important for the emergency manager of today and tomorrow, Woodbury said an ability to work within a network versus a hierarchy is important. “Emergency managers aren’t in charge of other state departments and they have to work within a network. Getting something done that does not involve a hierarchy is an important skill.”

Koon stressed that emergency management is a field for people with lots of different types of experience. “My department has 250 people: procurement people, attorneys, meteorologists, mitigation engineers, technology people. But in terms of leadership, I would say the skills I use most frequently are negotiation skills and consensus building, and I do public speaking every day. Getting ideas across to the public is crucial. Understanding the legislative process, understanding regulations and how they affect the work we do and what we can do better is key.”

He also talked about the increasing importance of technology. “I am not a tech expert, and emergency management is not big enough to drive the world of technology, but we can see areas of technology that can be impactful for us and deploy them.”

Dale said skills in communications, social media and GIS are going to be valuable in the future. “There is so much we can do with social media, but I still see so many emergency managers who don’t touch it or just put a press release on Facebook.”

But people can get too enamored of technology, warned Ghilarducci. He said his office has hired lots of young people new to the field. “They are very sharp and tech-savvy — perhaps too tech-savvy,” he said. Many of them have an inclination to address problems through technology. But building relationships for collaborative efforts is more challenging for them, because they are focused on technology. “A huge part of this job is personal relationships. Being able to pick up the phone and call the sheriff in a certain county or a legislator or mayor. They have to have the confidence in knowing you personally, and that you can help them solve a problem, and not just through email. You may be in a situation where you have lost power and communication networks are disrupted. You have to think on your feet and improvise. If you haven’t built that relationship on the front end, when you show up at that sheriff’s door, they are going to say, ‘I don’t know you, get the heck out of here.’”

Yet he remains optimistic about the types of people entering emergency management. “Their intellect and ability to problem-solve are amazing. We have a mentoring program and an internship program. We are bringing in young people and getting them engaged.”