What Makes an Emergency Manager?

Over the weekend I posted a question on Twitter that prompted a fair amount of discussion with my EM colleagues. What I asked:

Does simply working in emergency management make you an emergency manager? (Even with my ego) it took several years of working in the field before I was comfortable calling myself an emergency manager.

The resulting discussion brought up considerations of time on the job, job responsibilities and titles, education, professional certifications, standards, and other relevant topics. I fully admitted to my own biases, initially directed toward myself and my own career trajectory, but that I honestly have a tendency to carry over to others who might be new to an emergency management job; certainly, with no intent to belittle anyone or gatekeep the profession. The discussions over the weekend on Twitter led me to realize that part of my bias came from what roles I performed early in my career. My primary being a training technician, helping to prepare for and conduct training courses – certainly not managing the program until a few years later. Similarly, early in my career, any emergency deployments or taskings were at the ‘doer’ level, not anywhere near the actual supervision or management responsibilities that came a few years into my career. All of this was appropriate for early in my career. Certainly, I felt that I worked in the field of emergency management, but not that I was a true emergency manager. Not until I was given responsibility and authority, both in my primary job and emergency assignments, that I felt that I was an emergency manager.

I’d also suggest that I was influenced by my own impressions of many of the people I worked with and worked for. I was fortunate enough to learn and be mentored by some really incredible emergency managers (both in their primary and emergency roles). I was awed by their knowledge, their talent, and their ability to coordinate some very diverse groups of people and resources into a unity of effort. In my early years I couldn’t yet do that. I had a lot to learn and respect to garner before I felt I could call myself an emergency manager.

Certification is an interesting thing. While there are certifications in many professions, these fall into two significant types: Those that require experience and those that do not. I think they each have their place and are often appropriate to the profession which they are in. Standards are a related yet still different matter, especially since, in emergency management and related professions, there are several ‘certifications’ that can be obtained. The ideal is to have a standard in the profession. I think standards are something to be explored further, and I give a shoutout to friend and colleague Ashley Morris (@missashes92) who has a lot of thoughts about where standardization should go in emergency management. Personally, I think one standard of practice should be internships or mentorships. These are required by certain professions and I think that, when structured well, they are a great way to gain the proper kind of experience necessary.

Education was another topic that has relevance but also a lot of nuance, as it also has ties to job duties, certification, and standards. I don’t feel that someone having a degree at any level can simply call themselves an emergency manager. There is a lot of consideration for what degrees are applicable, and that’s a challenge given how broad emergency management is. Despite so many of us beating the drum that emergency management is not just response, we still see so many emergency management job postings listing experience requirements as a first responder. It’s a challenge for us to identify as a unique profession when so many jurisdictions simply appoint a police officer or fire fighter to an emergency management job because it’s “close enough” (given no other screening or qualifications). We all know emergency management is so much broader than response applications yet, as a profession, we tolerate that crap. Emergency management has so many niche functions within, many of which are supported by their own unique education standards: engineers, finance and grants, technology, communications, public and/or business administration/management, instructional design, human services, public health, and so much more. Think about all the business units within a large emergency management agency, or a ‘day in the life’ of a one-person emergency management shop. Recovery, mitigation, preparedness, response, grants, volunteer management, community engagement, interagency coordination, logistics, etc. None of that is one skillset. Yet many education programs in emergency management will just talk history and theory. Others will focus on response. Few seem to do it right, giving a good, comprehensive picture of it all. Depending on where they will work, some practitioners need to know about a lot of different things, while in others they can specialize.

Is someone who just does grants management any less of an emergency manager than someone who only does mitigation or someone who only does training? To even put a bit more of a curve on this, how about someone who is an academic, or a researcher, or a consultant? What boxes need to be checked to be labeled as an emergency manager?

The discussion on Twitter to my one question lasted a couple of days, with a lot of really interesting thoughts and insight. Everyone that contributed had very valid perspectives, and it seemed that many agreed that there is no simple answer.

As always, I’m interested in the thoughts of my readers. What do you think is makes an emergency manager?

©2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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