Training & Education

What You Should Know About Emergency Management Degrees

Holman says her degree helped her land interviews, but the experience she got while in school was more helpful. “I participated in conferences, got to know people in local and state government, got lucky and was able to work some disasters while I was in school,” she said.

The degree gave Holman the basics, but much of the practical side was outside the classroom — she was required to do an externship and worked with the Campus Emergency Response Team.

The transition hasn’t been as difficult as she expected. “You learn how things should work in school, and then you get into the real world and learn how things really do work,” Holman said. “So much of it revolves around a bureaucracy, you have to understand that.”

There’s another, more altruistic, reason to get an emergency management degree. According to Canton, it goes toward making emergency management a profession and not an occupation. A degree shows interest in all phases of emergency management and isn’t limited to emergency response or a second retirement career.

Right now, however, “the degree thing is more future-oriented than today-oriented,” according to Eric Holdeman, former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. He said, however, that even today a degree gives the applicant an advantage.

Mike Kelly is working that advantage. Kelly, a senior at American

Military University, is about to graduate with a degree in emergency management with a specialty in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear hazards. He was a U.S. Marine air traffic controller during 9/11 and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he left the service. 

“Then I stumbled onto the FEMA Independent Study courses, and that is what sank the hook in,” Kelly said. The benefit of the degree for Kelly is being regarded as a professional, not just from his peers, but to himself. 

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Kelly talked to an emergency manager from a rural Midwest county. The man had never heard of the International Association of Emergency Managers, didn’t know what a CEM was and didn’t see a degree as necessary. He wears many hats, Kelly admitted, and it’s more difficult to stay involved and current in that kind of setting, but “it was frightening” to realize what the man didn’t know.

The areas common to all these professionals is a shared vision of where emergency management is going. That vision includes degrees in emergency management, the need for experience after leaving school, and professional certification like the CEM and Certified Business Continuity Professional.

Most position announcements posted now for emergency managers say a degree or certification is preferred, but Canton and Holdeman expect that to change in the next 10 years.

“I don’t know a professional certification that doesn’t require a degree,”  Canton said. “You won’t be taken seriously if you didn’t.”

The bottom line is that if current emergency managers want to be taken seriously, they’d be wise to start working on that bachelor’s or master’s degree now. And if future emergency managers want to take their place, they should be boosting their marketability by looking for experience opportunities while they’re still in school. k

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a CEM, Certified Business Continuity Professional and an instructor/lecturer for California State University, Long Beach. She also writes the Disaster Academia blog for
Emergency Management’s website at

Suggested Career Tips for Emergency Management

University of Washington Business Continuity Manager Scott Preston wrote a guide, Suggested Career Tips for Emergency Management, that outlines steps for starting a career path in emergency management:

  • Take independent courses in emergency management to learn about the field — FEMA offers a variety of online self-study courses.
  • Volunteer — Volunteer with your state, county or local emergency management office.
  • Take advantage of free professional magazines and publications — Natural Hazards Observer, Continuity Insights and (of course) Emergency Management.
  • Join a professional association and get certified — The International Association of Emergency Managers offers the Certified Emergency Manager and Associate Emergency Manager programs.
  • Be creative! — An emergency manager might be called something different and still have emergency management responsibilities in areas like public works, public health, special districts or private industry. Read the full guide online at


Valerie Lucus-McEwen Valerie Lucus-McEwen  |  Contributing Writer

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a certified emergency manager, certified business continuity professional and an adjunct professor for California State University, Long Beach. She can be reached by email.

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