Emergency management standards and evaluations

Emergency Management as a Profession

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Emergency Management as a Profession

Although most emergency managers and many people in related fields would agree that emergency management is a profession, they might disagree about the extent to which it is a mature profession (Oyola-Yemaiel & Wilson, 2005). Perhaps at this point it is most useful to view emergency management as a developing profession, moving in the direction of achieving the three professional benchmarks of membership certification, organized body of knowledge, and ethical standards. After all, the concept of emergency management has been undergoing very rapid change. As its history was traced in Chapter 1, emergency management meant civil defense or wartime attack preparations as recently as the 1980s. Since then, the vision of the field has become more firmly represented in the management of natural and technological hazards and, most recently, in addressing terrorist threats. Over this same period, emergency management has come to regard hazard mitigation and disaster recovery as being as important as emergency preparedness and emergency response. In addition to changes in the vision and practice of emergency management have come changes in the threat environment and the tools available for dealing with those threats. This very fluid situation has slowed the development of consensus on the definition of the field and particularly in defining the body of practitioners.

Furthermore, the vision of practitioners has radically changed over the past fifty years. Perry (1985) has pointed out that, if emergency managers were distinguished from those delivering police and fire services, the jurisdictional emergency management role was often embodied in the “Civil Defense Director”. Incumbents in this role tended not to have specialized training beyond some experience in the military (usually retired), often were not college educated, and usually were not prominent in jurisdictional administration. Thus, according to Perry (1985, p. 135), “the vision was one of a largely invisible person, presumably attached in some way to defense authorities (whoever they were), charged for the most part with civil defense duties (whatever they were)”. Blanchard (2004) notes this vision has given way to a career oriented, college educated professional who has acquired knowledge from the physical and social sciences, planning, and engineering. Emergency managers “apply science, technology, planning, and management to deal with extreme events that can injure or kill large numbers of people, do extensive damage to property, and disrupt community life (Drabek, 1991a, p. xvii). More specifically, as previous chapters have indicated, the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) required of an emergency manager include:

  • Knowledge about a wide range of natural and technological hazards,

  • Knowledge about a diverse set of methods for assessing their communities’ vulnerability to those hazards,

  • Skill in managing emergency management programs in hazard mitigation, emergency preparedness and response, and disaster recovery preparedness and implementation,

  • Knowledge of the ways in which different disciplines and agencies can contribute to emergency management programs,

  • Sufficient knowledge of the policy process to be an effective policy entrepreneur, and

  • Skill in organizing, leading, and coordinating the performance of an emergency management organization.

Another important aspect of emergency management is that its practitioners can be found in a wide variety of settings. The principal distinction here is between public sector and private sector emergency managers. Although there are many similarities in the duties of these two groups, there are important distinctions as well. Private sector emergency managers have a more narrow scope, usually focusing on a single business, site, or industry (Elliott, Swartz & Herbane, 1999). Except when mandated by government (as in the case of nuclear power plants), private sector emergency managers are responsible for their facilities’ employees, but not the public at large. Public sector emergency managers address the needs of governments themselves, government employees, the jurisdiction’s citizens, and private sector organizations within their communities (Perry & Lindell, 1987). Particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the concern of government emergency managers with emergency preparations of private organizations has been high (Perry & Lindell, 2003). Also, governments engage in emergency management as an obligation and may be held legally liable for specific failures to recognize and plan for environmental threats. This liability is both to citizens and to other governments. Although private sector organizations might indeed be held liable in courts for personal and property damages generated by their operations, they have much more limited responsibility to engage in emergency management (Lindell, in press). Private sector and public sector emergency managers operate with differing scope, resources, obligations, and public accountability.

Public sector emergency managers also differ in the size of the jurisdictions in which they operate. Those in smaller jurisdictions report more frequent contacts with elected officials and, surprisingly, disproportionately lower frequency of contacts with Red Cross personnel (Drabek, 1987). Emergency managers in smaller jurisdictions also tend to have contact with higher level agency personnel (e.g., police chief rather than a police lieutenant), have less formalized interagency agreements, fewer joint programs with other agencies, and fewer overlapping memberships, but higher levels of perceived interorganizational coordination (Drabek, 1987).

The final distinction discussed here addresses public sector emergency managers who operate at different levels of government. In large part, this concerns issues of scope and context (intergovernmental relationships). Overlain upon these issues is the notion that jurisdictions and governmental levels vary in the extent to which emergency management is officially constituted and allocated resources. At the municipal level, emergency management rarely exists as a separate department; is often assigned as a collateral duty, and is frequently located in an “emergency management coordinator’s office” within the fire or police department. Sometimes much, if not all, of the municipal emergency management function is relinquished to a county organization (such as emergency management or Sheriff’s Office). Indeed, local emergency management functions are highly variable in their presence as well as in their degree of success (US General Accounting Office, 2003). Emergency management at the municipal level is closest to the disaster impact and the people affected. At the same time as local emergency managers are subject to many federal and state mandates, they have the fewest resources in the intergovernmental hierarchy and must frequently rely upon other governments, outside experts, the media, and even private sector organizations for resources. In county government, emergency management constraints are similar to those experienced at the municipal level.

State and federal emergency managers occupy positions that are, for the most part, quite different from those of local emergency managers. In the United States, each state has an emergency management department (or a division of a larger department), as well as other departments that house emergency management capabilities and responsibilities. State emergency management agencies provide technical guidance and financial support to LEMAs, conduct statewide hazard/vulnerability analyses, and evaluate LEMA performance. At a federal level, the FEMA works with other federal agencies such as EPA and DOT to define policies, develop programs, and provide technical and financial assistance. Such resources are often passed through the states to the local level. Thus, as discussed in Chapter 2, emergency managers at state and federal levels tend to operate more at a policy and program level. Only a few of these programs involve direct incident response (e.g., Coast Guard Strike Teams). Indeed, NIMS emphasizes that federal and state resources “flow downward” into the implementation structures created by local emergency managers. At federal and state levels, the job of emergency manager emphasizes management of programs and coordination of organizations. Certainly the ability to identify experts and technology and link them with programs and policies through the intergovernmental hierarchy remains important. But as Drabek (1990) indicates, critical skills also include agenda control, constituency support building, budget, and financial analysis expertise, coalition building skills, and innovation and entrepreneurial skills. Furthermore, time horizons may vary for such officials in terms of their incumbency as appointees or civil servants. Moore (1995) offers an extensive generic description of other managerial skills important in state and federal managers.

The picture of the emergency management profession that emerges from this discussion is multifaceted. Clearly the core notions involve environmental hazards and their management. Emergency managers are knowledgeable about the full range of natural and technological threats (an “all hazard” orientation), methods of assessing community hazard vulnerability, and methods of managing this hazard vulnerability (an “all phases” orientation). Moreover, their “all phases” orientation distinguishes emergency managers from fields that specialize in specific phases. For example, urban/regional planners and civil engineers focus on issues related to HVA, hazard mitigation, and disaster recovery. Conversely, police, fire, and EMS focus more on emergency preparedness and response. Finally, their focus on managing the community’s response in abnormal conditions—emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes—distinguishes emergency managers from other types of public administrators.

Accordingly, emergency managers must serve as generalists who integrate the contributions from many different technical disciplines. Emergency managers don’t need to be competent in all technical skill areas (hazard mapping using GIS, toxic plume projections, slope stability analysis, seismic structural analysis), but instead must understand how these different disciplines fit into the mosaic of hazard management. The emergency manager is a generalist who knows where to find and how to request the services of specialists. Specifically, which hazards are managed is important but not definitive because emergency managers are found in different regions of the country and at all levels of government as well as the private sector. In addition, like any other profession, emergency management requires communication and organizational skills, including strategic planning and management, political management, and human resources management. Blanchard (2003) identified an extensive list of competencies and skills appropriate for emergency management professionals that has more recently been the subject of a survey of practicing emergency managers (Spiewak, 2006).

Table 12-1. Emergency Managers’ Top 20 Core Competencies




Operations and Procedures


Hazard Identification, Risk Assessment, and Impact Analysis


Finance and Administrative


Direction, Control, and Coordination




Laws and Authorities




Exercises, Evaluations, and Corrective Actions


Recovery and Business Continuity


Communications and Warnings


Logistics and Facilities


Hazard Mitigation


Crisis Communications


Resource Management


Project Management


Continuity of Operations/ Continuity of Government




Mutual Aid


Risk Management

If one accepts this picture of the emergency management profession and acknowledges the features of professions described by Trank and Rynes (2003), a logical question centers on what emergency mangers need to do to continue to develop as a profession. There are probably as many opinions regarding “what we need” as a profession as there are emergency managers, with no definitive answers. Indeed, the question of professionalization has received much attention in recent years, with the discussion led in large part by the FEMA Higher Education Project and the International Association of Emergency Managers (Ditch, 2003). Although these discussions have examined many dimensions of the profession and benefits of professionalization, the following discussion will address three avenues for professional growth that have generated a significant amount of agreement.

The first activity that reinforces development as a profession is to continue to define emergency management as a profession and a distinctive professional identity. Paths to this outcome include enhancing a professional ideology and ethics. Although emergency management is inherently interdisciplinary and must serve as an umbrella for many technical fields (an inclusive task), it also is necessary to be somewhat exclusive in identifying the unique features of emergency management. This can be accomplished by distinguishing emergency managers from emergency responders, urban/regional planners, and others—without placing any field “above” another.

An important part of cementing a professional identity is the growth of professional associations and the encouragement of participation by emergency managers. There are many specialized associations that are available to emergency management professionals that range in emphasis from narrow subject matter (for example, the Association of Contingency Planners) to broad subject matter (National Association of Environmental Professionals). There are at least three professional associations that appeal directly to those engaged in what is described here as the emergency management profession. The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) has a long history beginning as the US Civil Defense Council and then becoming the National Coordinating Committee on Emergency Management before adopting its present name and structure. The IAEM sponsors meetings, continuing education opportunities, and a professional certification program. Similarly, the National Emergency Management Association is open to membership for state emergency management directors and others interested in emergency management at that level of government. Finally, the Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response Association is international in scope, embraces both public and private sector, and sponsors meetings, training and a variety of school based educational programs. An important notion is that participation in associations provides opportunities for learning, for networking with others, and for gaining a “sense of self” as an emergency manager.

Defining the collective identity is also accomplished through participating in continuing education and professional development programs. Continuing education is available through colleges and universities, private corporations, and government sponsorship. Many of these programs are listed on the FEMA Higher Education Web site (training.fema.gov/emiweb/edu). In government, professional development opportunities are available through the programs operated by FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. There is a Professional Development Series and an Advanced Professional Series, each of which offers not only specialized training, but also a certificate for completion of a full course of study.

The concept of professional ethics for emergency managers has not as yet received as much attention as other issues related to professional growth. The IAEM emphasizes ethics among its members and has adopted a formal ethical code. The IAEM code emphasizes three components. The first part focuses upon the need to respect people (particularly citizens), laws, regulations, and fiscal resources. The second issue emphasizes commitment to engendering trust, acting fairly, and being effective stewards of resources entrusted to their management. Finally, the code asserts that members should embrace professionalism founded on education, safety, and protection of life and property. This particular statement of ethics is generic, but captures key issues normally addressed in ethical codes. One interesting feature of this code is the apparent concern for acting in concert with the regulations and resources of the organizations served. Moore (1995) argues that such stands place the administrator in the role of “faithful servant” of the elected and appointed managers of the organization. As they consolidate their position as experts, some professional groups move away from this position to a more assertive role in management and focus ethical aspects of service on more discipline specific principles and evaluative rules. This issue notwithstanding, the IAEM, by adopting and publishing an ethical code, is presently leading the discussion of ethics in the field of emergency management. It should be noted, too, that because emergency management is a diverse field, practitioners are likely to be subject to a variety of ethical codes as a function of their membership in and certification by different professional associations and organizations. For example, emergency managers who are Certified Environmental Professionals are subject to the Academy of Board Certified Environmental Professionals Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Environmental Professionals. The Business Continuity Institute also maintains a code of ethics for those who accept membership or certification. Because many emergency managers are employed by some level of government, they are subject to the formal ethical codes of their jurisdictions. In addition, many are members of the American Society for Public Administration, which has an extensive ethical code. These overlapping sets of ethical guidelines rarely present problems and, indeed, are common for professionals. It remains important, however, that emergency managers continue to attend to the issue of ethics and to develop publicly visible ethical codes. This practice stresses for the public, and also the organizations in which professionals are embedded, that emergency management is a profession whose members are prepared to act independently in keeping with their professional identity and standards.

A second activity that is critical for the development of a profession of emergency management is to build and grow an identifiable body of knowledge for practitioners. Certainly as an interdisciplinary, science based profession, emergency management will always use bodies of knowledge generated by others. The management of specific environmental threats is a function of the state of technology, which is a function of the state of knowledge in a variety of scientific disciplines. For example, the state of knowledge in seismology does not currently provide a forecasting technology capable of supporting preimpact evacuation from earthquakes in the way that meteorological forecasting supports preimpact hurricane evacuations. Although such bodies of knowledge have significant roles in the conduct of emergency management, the professional body of knowledge described in previous sections pertains specifically to emergency management. In particular, emergency managers need to develop an organized body of knowledge regarding emergency management strategies and tools. Such a body of professional knowledge would be particularly useful in supporting research directed at evaluating the wide variety of tools emergency managers use to accomplish their objectives. The National Research Council (2003, p. 5) has argued that “education and research, in addition to the role of technology…play vital roles in the advancement of emergency management.” To date, however, the research literature evaluating the effectiveness of programs and policies is very sparse (Lindell & Perry, 2001). Drabek (1987, 1990, 2003) has been one of the few researchers who has consistently conducted studies of organizational strategies available to emergency managers.

Despite their need to keep abreast of the advancing state of knowledge, emergency managers are practitioners rather than researchers. No one expects that, in addition to their other duties, emergency managers will have the desire or resources to conduct their own research. However, there is a longstanding tradition of hazards and disasters research in the academic community. It is these researchers that conduct the needed studies. The role of the practicing emergency manager should be (when feasible) to endorse the need for well designed research, participate in research when possible, identify areas needing research, critically examine the research findings, and put the resulting knowledge to work.

Of course, the quality of the body of professional knowledge developed from research depends upon successful linkages between practitioners and researchers (Mileti, 1999). There has long been an awkward relationship in the emergency management community between practitioners and researchers. This is not unique to emergency management, but also exists in other professions such as medicine, public health, business administration, urban planning, and public administration. As Fischer (1998) has pointed out, the reward system for researchers is quite different from the reward system for practitioners. This leads each group to have distinct goals and interests. For the professional growth of emergency management, however, it remains critical that the knowledge supplied through research be meaningful, explicitly assembled and available, and used in practice.

There are many positive developments resulting from the growth of an emergency management body of knowledge. The increasing involvement of emergency managers in higher education and the evolution of emergency management degree programs will shrink the gap between practitioners and researchers. Contacts between professional associations, such as the IAEM, with research organizations, such as the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee on Disasters, will enhance communications regarding research priorities and research results. Particularly as emergency management degree programs and departments develop in colleges and universities, the problems of the “academic legitimacy” of disaster research cited by Fischer (1998) will decrease. The proliferation of programs that actively promote the interaction of practitioners and researchers—such as the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder—will further enhance communication and cooperative projects.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this body of knowledge in establishing emergency management as a profession. An established body of tested knowledge is a critical part of the claim that emergency managers are capable of making credible contributions to decisions about how jurisdictions should manage community vulnerability to environmental hazards. The accepted body of professional knowledge forms a defensible basis for practice and, when improvisation is required, it is the base from which one innovates. The extent to which emergency managers are skilled in using the body of professional knowledge provides a standard for evaluating their performance. Moreover, it forms the basis for the design and execution of training and education, including higher education and degree programs. In asserting their credibility to the public and other decisionmakers, the body of knowledge is what uniquely sets emergency managers apart from other professions.

Finally, the third critical feature for advancing emergency management as a profession involves asserting control over the body of professional knowledge and its dissemination. This goal can be accomplished through establishing specialized training, certifications, and academic degrees. At present, there are many definitions of what constitutes the body of knowledge as it is taught in colleges and universities (Phillips, 2005). The IAEM and FEMA Higher Education Project continue to be the most prominent actors with regard to this issue. The process of training and credentialing is perhaps the strongest public indicator to set emergency management apart as a profession. To control a body of professional knowledge, however, boundaries must be drawn regarding what information lies within it and, consequently what are the essential elements of training and education. Thus, the first step in taking control of a body of knowledge is the presence of legitimate associations and organizations to define it. The FEMA Higher Education Project has already begun the process of examining how an accreditation system might be developed for academic degree programs (Walker, 1998). Until an accrediting body is officially established, the Higher Education Project has undertaken programmatic activity to establish a direction for specifying the emergency management body of knowledge.

Finally, the FEMA Higher Education Project has undertaken three methods for defining and influencing the use of the emergency management body of knowledge. The first method is direct study of emergency management practice and the development of specific listings of competencies for emergency managers (Blanchard, 2003). The second method is to develop specific courses and course outlines with emergency management content and to make them freely available through its Web site (training.fema.gov/emiweb/edu) to any interested party. The content of these courses has been developed by contract with prominent emergency managers and disaster researchers and reviewed by panels of experts. Such materials support teachers of individual classes in a variety of academic departments. More important, however, the courses have collectively become a basis for detailed curriculum development and for the design of degree programs in emergency management.

The third method of defining the emergency management body of professional knowledge has been to compile and update a directory of college level programs, including those that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, certificates, academic minors, and diplomas. Even the simple availability of this information encourages those who inquire to pursue further enhancement of their expertise. The presence of the catalog itself serves to inform both those inside and outside emergency management that there is a basis in education for practice. Moreover, the FEMA Higher Education Project makes available sample syllabi for a wide range of classes on emergency management topics and has developed full college courses with instructor guides, readings, exercises, field trips, and student notes.

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