The field of emergency management is constantly evolving. New ideas are being blended with old principles, creating a profession that is hardly recognizable when compared to the emergency management practices of 20 or 30 years ago. Emerging EMs who are completing, or have just completed, degrees in emergency management are finding that their knowledge is in competition with the field experience of their more seasoned counterparts. While there are benefits to both academic training and field experience, newcomers to the vocation don’t have to wait until they finish their degrees, or until they snag that coveted first job, to get involved. Here are a few ways for new and emergent emergency management professionals to establish themselves in this dynamic and diverse profession.
While the most effective emergency managers often have years of field experience, there are steps that the emerging EM can take to get familiar with the ideologies, principles and terminology that they will encounter in the field. Most jobs expect candidates to have completed (at minimum) IS 100, 200, 700 and 800. However, the FEMA Emergency Management Institute’s Independent Study Program offers almost 150 free online courses covering a wide range of topics including the Incident Command System, the National Response Framework, management of volunteers, effective communication, social media in disasters, civil rights and ethics in emergency management, hazard mitigation and preparedness, and more. (Did I mention that these courses are online and free?)
There are a wide variety of volunteer opportunities available that will allow you to serve your community and learn valuable skills at the same time. Donating a few hours a month to your local chapter of the American Red Cross or Salvation Army, participating in disaster drills and exercises, or volunteering at your local firehouse or emergency operations center are all great ways to network, get to know the emergency response personnel in your community and lend a helping hand. There are also local community service organizations that recruit and retain volunteers to deploy if a disaster occurs within the community. These volunteers are trained to assist in times of crisis and are a vital part of local response and recovery efforts. You could even work with these organizations and become a community preparedness liaison and help your community to develop, assess and implement its own preparedness initiatives.
Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training is another readily accessible source of local emergency management experience. CERT programs offer valuable education and training opportunities in various facets of emergency and disaster response, promoting sustainable communities by empowering members to aid themselves and others in times of crisis.
Local Emergency Planning Committees provide a valuable opportunity to get more information and provide feedback on emergency management plans and procedures that impact your community. Meetings are held periodically throughout the year and provide another opportunity to participate in the process of community preparedness.
Many companies and organizations prefer to hire internally, and a great way to establish yourself, develop valuable skills and gain a competitive advantage in an organization is to begin your work as an intern. In addition to increasing competency and capabilities, internships also serve as an opportunity to make contacts and establish connections. Moreover, internships provide the opportunity to “test drive” an emergency management career, as well as a career with that particular company or organization, to see if it’s right for you.
The best way to find out what skills and capabilities are needed in the workplace is simply to ask. Identify leaders and professionals in your community, or in your field of interest, whose work you admire. Send an email, call or write a letter and ask for a few minutes of his or her time. Come prepared with a list of 10 questions, listen carefully and take plenty of notes. Keep in mind that this is not a job interview, so resist the urge to accidentally leave a copy of your résumé on his or her desk, or to use this time pitching yourself instead of gaining valuable perspectives and insight from this experience. Be sure to send a follow-up card or letter as soon as possible, thanking the person for his or her time.
Landing that coveted first job is rarely easy, but with a little persistence and a strategic investment of your time and energy, you will establish a strong foundation for a successful career in emergency management.
Charisma Williams is an emergency management analyst in Crystal City, Va. She is currently completing her M.S. in engineering management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.