Training & Education

Professionals Debate the Need for Emergency Management Certification

Emergency managers disagree about how useful the CEM certification is to individuals and to the profession.

Emergency management’s evolution as a profession has included the development of professional certifications like the Certified Emergency Manager (CEM). But professionals disagree about how useful the certification is to individuals and to the profession.

Some say certification is a needed step toward emergency management becoming a more mature profession. Others say the work required to maintain the certification outweighs any benefits.

The CEM certification came from a sense in the early ’90s that the profession needed to become more sophisticated, said Dean R. Larson, president of Larson Performance Consulting in Munster, Ind., and chair of the USA CEM Commission for the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).

Emergency management’s “roots came from civil defense,” said Larson. “As civil defense started to become broader than just preparing for a response to enemy attacks, there was a need for a significant upgrade in emergency management.”

The evolution of strategies — such as the all-hazards approach, which used a similar structure for all disasters, whether natural or man-made, accidental or intentional — highlighted the need for more professional managers, Larson said. The IAEM created a standard body of knowledge for emergency managers, then set requirements for them to meet to become certified.

The certifications have evolved, but today both the CEM and the related Associate Emergency Manager (AEM) certifications require 200 training hours, an essay, three reference letters and an exam. CEM certification also requires a four-year college degree, three years’ experience in emergency management and significant professional contributions.

Simply gathering all the documentation for his CEM certification was “a very extensive process,” said Lucien Canton, former director of emergency services for San Francisco and now an independent consultant.

When Diane Newman, a regional planner for the Puget Sound Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program, was first certified in 1999, “it took me at least 40 hours to gather all the information they required,” she said.

As of 9/11, there were 1,106 CEMs and 99 AEMs in 49 states and 13 countries, said Larson, who holds the CEM certification himself.

An Emerging Profession

Some professions, like medicine or law, have clearly defined entry paths. People know when they go to a doctor or hire a lawyer that that person had certain training and passed specific exams to be able to practice.

“Emergency management is not a mature profession,” said Judith Hale, a Chicago-based consultant in performance improvement and certification and author of Performance-Based Certification. “It’s an emerging profession.”

This means there are many paths to becoming an emergency manager. Identifying what people must know to work in the field, and how to learn it, is a critical function of a certification program, Hale said. “That’s what certification does: It’s an attempt to identify the bodies of knowledge that you have to have.”

The inclusion of practical experience as part of the CEM certification exemplifies a trend in certifications today, she said. Employers want to know that a candidate passed an exam and can apply that knowledge. “There’s a greater onus for the certification to have a practicum, hands-on, portfolio or proven proficiency.”

Certification advocates say that because of these issues, certification is crucial to the entire profession.

“Ultimately, if we’re going to be a profession, we have to have a certification,” Canton said. “You look at this as, ‘What am I going to get out of it?’ As you mature, you start looking at, ‘What does this do for the profession?’”

Still, individual benefits are important, particularly since getting the certification requires so much work.

For Canton, the knowledge that his political appointment would eventually end made him consider how best to prepare himself for a career in consulting. “It was important for me to do as a professional,” he said.

Eric Holdeman, an emergency management consultant and blogger who previously worked in emergency management for Washington state and King County, had similar thoughts when he got his certification in the early ’90s. “I saw the future,” he said. “If this is where it’s headed, eventually job announcements will say ‘CEM certification required’ or ‘desirable.’”

Catherine Kane, vice president of Emergency Management Professional Organization for Women’s Enrichment (EMPOWER), an emergency management organization for women, said her members find CEM as a way to assure employers. “It underscores the importance of continuous learning through periodic coursework and contributions to the profession,” Kane said. “And it’s a signal to other emergency management professionals of knowledge, expertise and contribution.”

The credential helps emergency managers early in their careers show their commitment to the profession. “Having an important credential like the CEM signals the ability and willingness to understand the discipline and to commit to a regular cycle of learning, employment and contribution,” Kane said.

EMPOWER offers a virtual study circle program to help members study for the exam and prepare their applications.

Doubting the Value

But not everyone’s a fan of the CEM. Some seasoned professionals have decided not to renew their certifications, saying the hassle outweighs the benefits. One reason is the extensive training requirements — which can be difficult to meet in strict budgetary times.

“Though I’d been working continuously in emergency management, I didn’t have accepted documentation of the required training in the proper categories necessary to maintain my CEM certification,” said Newman, who chose not to renew her CEM certification in 2004.

Holdeman ran into a similar issue once he’d taken all the courses he could take locally. It was hard to get funding to travel to outside conferences.

Margaret Steen  |  Contributing Writer

Margaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.

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