Across emergency management, dependent upon specific jobs, we certainly need to apply a lot of technical skillsets. So often, though, soft skills are dismissed, which is quite ironic given that soft skills are really the foundation of what emergency managers need given our emphasis on communication, collaboration, and coordination.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, soft skills are things that are generally applicable to various types of work. These include things like communication, writing, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, organizing, time management, and others. These are skills generally expected of any working professional. They can be honed, but often require some innate ability. Soft skills are different from hard skills, which are those that tend to be more technical and industry specific. These are also generally something acquired more through learning and less dependent upon innate ability.
FEMA’s Professional Development Series (PDS) used to be a cornerstone of emergency management training. Many state emergency management training programs had an emphasis on these courses and the content they provided. The PDS offered soft skills courses, such as Effective Communication, Decision Making and Problem Solving, and Leadership alongside training on topics more so focused on emergency management topics. These courses did a lot to support the professionalism of emergency managers and their abilities to do their jobs in a reasonably comprehensive nature. About 15 years ago FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute made the decision to offer these courses as part of their Independent Study program, a choice that made the content more widely available while also arguably decreasing the effectiveness of the training by removing the dynamics of a live instructor and the learning gained from group activities. While states still had the option to continue delivering classroom versions of these courses, demand severely dropped as people opted to take the courses online.
While the PDS is still available, it’s in a diminished popularity. FEMA’s EMI now offers the National Emergency Management Basic Academy, which provides a great series of courses, and to their credit, they do include some soft skills topics within the courses, especially the Foundations of Emergency Management course. That said, we still need more. Soft skills aren’t a one-off, they need to be built and honed. While FEMA’s EMI isn’t the only provider of soft skills training, they are the go-to provider for most emergency managers.
Having recently had the opportunity to review the participant manual for the new Advanced Planning Practitioner course, I was very happy to see the thought put into providing content on soft skills particularly as they relate to the hard skills involved in emergency planning. Emergency planning at its essence is absolutely a hard skill, with specific technical aspects, but there are several soft skills that are complimentary to the process of emergency planning, without which the planning effort will be less than effective. Consider that so much of emergency planning is consensus building, coordination, meeting management, research, and writing. Communication, facilitation, and public speaking are central to much of this.
I think a lot of people have a tendency to roll their eyes at soft skills, thinking that their abilities are already at peak performance or claiming that they are good because they took a course 15 years ago. As professionals in emergency management, we need to regularly spend time honing our skills. Yes, there are plenty of technical things for us to be trained in and practice such as plan writing, exercises, ICS, etc., but soft skills make us better at doing those things. Both in government service and as a consultant, I see far too many people lacking in soft skills. There may be some highly technical jobs where soft skills have less importance, but soft skills in emergency management are just as important, if not more important, than some technical skills, especially when you consider that one of the greatest values we contribute is our ability to bring people to the table, facilitate discussions, and gain consensus on important decisions before, during, and after disaster. How all that is applied may very well be technical, but we can’t get there without good soft skills.
What do you think are the most valuable soft skills?
© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP