Training & Education

Redefining the Emergency Manager: A Proposal for Change

The lack of a structured alignment and cross-pollination between the worlds of academia and the practitioner has stalled the development of the next generation of emergency management leaders.

The opinions and ideas contained herein are those solely of the author and not necessarily reflective in any official capacity those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the United States government.

Long before the current benchmark events of Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and now Hurricane Sandy, the field of emergency management has progressively evolved over many generations of first responders, receivers and managers. Whether this has been the result of new policy and doctrine, adopting lessons learned and best practices, or simply adapting to a more all-hazards and capability-based environment, I think there is a general consensus that these changes have greatly benefited the field of emergency management and more importantly, the communities and disaster survivors they serve. The field has become significantly more proactive and integrated with response and recovery efforts, preparedness initiatives such as planning and training have gradually accepted the importance of cross-sector coordination, and leaders at all levels of government and across the whole community are now discussing risk-based prioritization of resources and the benefits derived from mitigating risks.

However, unlike most other professions, emergency managers have relied on an inconsistent approach to training and education, where unconventional career paths are often the norm. If you can imagine the implications this would have on other well defined professions like doctors, lawyers, engineers or pilots, then think of the positive impacts a consistent approach could have on emergency management training and education programs. While there have been extensive efforts to expand emergency management degree programs, they often focus on public policy or public administration or are off-sets from a traditional MBA. Regardless of the quality or consistency of these programs, the field as a whole lacks a structured framework that adequately prepares individuals to be effective emergency managers in the field. Despite the research and advances from several institutions on crisis leadership and meta-leadership, the lack of a structured alignment and cross-pollination between the worlds of academia and the practitioner has greatly stalled the development of the next generation of emergency management leaders. The current development system for emergency managers is akin to a student completing medical school and becoming a surgeon without doing a residency. We have focused too heavily on knowledge development, while neglecting the importance of the hands-on skills and abilities acquired through real-life experience, mentor and internships, and simulations. While it’s important to acknowledge there are different learning styles, in emergency management there are critical and necessary aspects that are much better suited to learn by doing as opposed to learning by reading. Conversely, individuals who develop their entire career in the field often have limited exposure to newly developed methodology based on sound research and analysis. There is a dire need to better integrate the whole community of emergency management in order to truly professionalize the field.

The Emergency Management Institute (EMI), under the direction of FEMA’s Protection and National Preparedness Directorate has recently made enormous strides in this arena by involving the whole community to include NEMA, the private sector and numerous others. The current direction to develop a National Training and Education System has caught the attention and interest of many stakeholders across all levels of government. Similarly, FEMA’s Response Directorate has allocated a lot of resources to focus on the development of its own disaster workforce, to include the revamped FEMA Reservist Program and the Incident Management Assistance Teams. The recent implementation of the FEMA Qualification System (FQS) and supporting doctrine established a performance-based framework to consistently apply standards toward the certification of the agency’s workforce. The FQS and supporting doctrine were largely modeled after the National Wildland Fire Qualification System, and represents a huge step in defining how the field of emergency management utilizes the Incident Command System at the federal level of resource support and coordination. Several other federal and state agencies are already considering the feasibility of adopting FQS as their own standard for an emergency management credentialing program.

These initiatives and programs from academia, FEMA and the countless other stakeholders involved have all greatly contributed toward this gradual evolution and progress for the field of emergency management and specifically training and education. Similarly, new doctrine such as FEMA’s capstone: Publication 1 and the frameworks resulting from Presidential Policy Directive 8 have greatly contributed to further defining the importance and requirements to successfully integrate and execute all phases of emergency management: preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. Although, it’s important to acknowledge that these initiatives may take several years of their own evolution and adaptation before being fully implemented and accepted by the field.

With so many new and emerging trends in the field of emergency management, and in a field that is evolving at a greater pace due to social media and advances in new technologies, the importance to re-focus on standardization (since the implementation of NIMS and ICS) is ever more critical today than in years past. So what exactly needs to be standardized? What have we missed in the field of emergency management if there are numerous new programs in academia, new policy and doctrine, and new systems for credentialing? It is the missing link across all these initiatives that still needs to be consistently understood and applied; the emergency manager. Without an agreed upon specification of the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities needed for such individuals to be successful, academia will continue to focus on the field of emergency management as opposed to the practitioner, the emergency manager. So much of the new policy and doctrine focuses on the critical components of preparedness, protection, response, recovery and mitigation, but rarely touches on the importance of the individual(s) responsible for executing those programs.

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