FEMA's Higher Ed Conference: Canceled?

Okay, FEMA didnt exactly cancel it; they moved it online, and shortened it, and now totally control the conversation.

In the realm of emergency management higher education, the annual FEMA Higher Education Conference is the event that brings us all together. Usually held the first week in June at the NETC campus in Emmitsburg, it attracts over 400 people, both academians and practitioners.

This conference – more than anything else – has benefited the process of moving Emergency Management from a vocation to a profession. My friend (and fellow blogger) from the dark side, Lu Canton, described it best:

“… (it) provides an opportunity for academics, researchers and practitioners to come together in a collegial atmosphere to discuss our ideas for higher education curricula for future emergency managers.” 

I say it attracts “over 400 people” because I can’t get the exact number for last year. FEMA removed the past 15 years of conference proceedings from the Higher Ed website sometime before they cancelled the Higher Ed Conference for 2013.

Okay, they didn’t exactly cancel it; they moved it online, and shortened it, and now totally control the conversation. The official announcement says:

To maximize the use of technologies and for greater efficiencies, the 2013 Higher Education Symposium will be conducted via a series of 4 targeted, topical, focused discussion areas presented via an on-line, web based platform.  … These virtual symposiums will be held in lieu of the Higher Education Conference. 

I know.  It doesn’t sound all that appealing, does it?

The Higher Ed Project and annual conference have an interesting history. Back in 1994, Kay C. Goss then Associate FEMA Director for National Preparedness, Training and Exercises, and John McKay, the Director of FEMA Training, created the FEMA Higher Education Project. At that time, there were few higher education degree programs, and the idea was for FEMA to solve some of their educational and training challenges by partnering with colleges and universities. The venerable Dr. B. Wayne Blanchard was brought onboard to manager the Project and expand the program – which he did very well, indeed!

In 1997, FEMA began hosting an annual conference to bring all interested parties together.  The attendance that first year was about 80.  In 2011, it was over 400. That is a 500% increase in participation in 14 years, which is very impressive.

Over the past few weeks, there had been rumors going around that the conference was in jeopardy of being cancelled, that it was one of the programs on the FEMA chopping block because of the sequester. This was really odd because FEMA pays very little to host the Higher Ed Conference. Everyone pays their own travel and for the infamous EMI meal ticket.  The first to register get one of the dorm rooms on the campus, and the rest stay off campus. Volunteers help the small Project staff put together the agenda and program.  There are even student volunteers to record the conference proceedings!!

We were all hoping the Conference would survive.  But it didn’t.  At this point, the decision has been made.  It is too late to reinstate it.

My concern is the precedent.  Does this mean the whole Program is in jeopardy? Will the conference happen next year? What else does FEMA have lined up for the chopping block? The sequester is being implemented as a death from a thousand cuts.  Who knows what is next to be cut?

In this case, the decision to cancel the Higher Ed Conference was made by the current Superintendent of FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute, Tony Russell. I blogged about him when he addressed last year’s Conference, very shortly (11 days) after he was appointed to the position. He talked about creating an ‘ocean of predictability’ , balancing the barrier between practitioners and academia, and partnerships that benefit the profession.  

I thought about sending Superintendent Russell an email about how disappointing it is that the Conference was cancelled, because the only thing predictable now is how much more difficult it will be to balance those barriers.

I decided to write this blog instead.