How to a Build a Career in Disaster Management

On September 20, 2018, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, decimating the island. In a report from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University (PDF, 2.4 MB), researchers estimated that the territory experienced an excess mortality of 2,975 people as a result of the Category 4 storm.

According to the report, a contributing factor to these mortalities was a lack of current crisis and emergency risk plans. With government agencies unprepared for the disaster, the territory needed people trained in handling emergencies in high-risk scenarios.

In other words, Puerto Rico needed professionals trained in disaster management.

What Is Disaster Management?

Emergency and disaster management is the field that seeks to organize, deploy and maintain the people and resources available to resolve crises. It encompasses all the regular functions of a community, including utilities (e.g., electricity and water), transportation, safe housing and food security. Calamities happen, and this profession is critical in both preparing for and recovering from them.

The Four-Step Disaster Management Cycle

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) divides emergency management into four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery (PDF, 1.7 MB). Each has a unique checklist of action steps and key players involved, though they may overlap at times.

1. Mitigation (or Prevention)

The disaster mitigation phase, also called disaster prevention, involves taking actions to prevent emergencies, decrease the chances of emergencies happening and lessen the effect of those that do, as described in FEMA’s resource on the phases of emergency management.

Examples: buying renter’s insurance, storing valuable items in a fireproof safe, parking in a covered area.

2. Preparedness

Disaster preparedness includes all measures taken to keep a community ready for emergencies, which FEMA says prepares the way for response and rescue teams and could potentially save lives. In this phase, community leaders come together to create a disaster preparedness plan or disaster preparedness checklist that outlines the steps that should be taken during and after a disaster.

Examples: buying a generator and regularly checking that it functions, preparing an emergency kit, building a bomb shelter.

3. Response

The purpose of disaster response is to provide support and relief to those affected by an event, as outlined by FEMA. This phase takes place during an emergency when preparedness plans are set into motion. On an individual level, disaster response could include finding shelter from an approaching tornado. On a community level, disaster response could include dispatching first responders to a collapsed building.

Examples: implementing an evacuation, restoring and maintaining phone lines, providing temporary shelter.

4. Recovery

FEMA states that disaster recovery includes all actions taken to restore a community to its pre-disaster state. Often, there is no clear point of transition from disaster response to disaster recovery. Full recovery — which also involves mitigation to prevent future problems — can take years for a community to achieve.

Examples: repairing roadways, requesting financial assistance to fund repairs.

Emergency vs. Disaster

Emergencies and disasters are similar in nature but different in scale and scope. Both involve at least one event that threatens human life or property and require professional support to manage. An emergency, however, is handled at the local level, while disasters are beyond the scope of a community’s resources.

What Is an Emergency?

An emergency can range from a relatively minor accident (e.g., leaving the oven on and starting a small kitchen fire) to a major local event (e.g., an electrical fire that affects a strip of local businesses). Emergencies are typically handled by local authorities: first responders, emergency medical technicians and police officers. As long as the event does not overwhelm a community’s own resource base, the event retains an emergency classification.

Types of Emergencies

Examples of emergencies include:

  • Car accident
  • Heat wave
  • Local power outage
  • House fire
  • Tornado

What Is a Disaster?

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, a disaster is a serious disruption with effects too great for local resources to handle. Hence, this type of event transcends the emergency label and receives a classification of disaster when local officials must call for external assistance from the federal government or international community. Disasters occur less frequently than emergencies, but the consequences can be more severe.

Types of Disasters

Disasters can be caused by geological or meteorological events, humans, or outbreaks of infectious disease.

Examples of disasters include:

  • Hurricanes
  • Wildfires
  • Mass violence
  • Industrial accident
  • Disease outbreak
  • Earthquakes

How to Prepare Yourself for Emergency Management Careers

Emergency and disaster management is a small but expanding world. An emergency management degree provides students with an up-to-date look at the field and can help them stand out in an increasingly competitive job market. At the same time, aspiring managers cannot rely on education alone to secure a paid, full-time position. Being effective at emergency and disaster management requires experience handling complex scenarios and making tough leadership calls. Students can best prepare for this career by pursuing both kinds of training.

Educate Yourself in the Field

Becoming an emergency management specialist (EMS) requires a bachelor’s degree. While additional education beyond a bachelor’s degree is not required, earning a master’s degree can jumpstart students’ careers by introducing them to the latest developments in the field and teaching the leadership skills necessary to corral the many players and organizations involved in managing a crisis. Those interested in pursuing EMS careers have several options for education in both online and on-campus formats, including short courses, certifications and degrees. For more information about graduate degrees, see MPH@GW’s online Master of Public Health program.

Certification by the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which was developed by FEMA, may also be required to serve as an EMS.

Find Volunteer or Internship Opportunities

Gaining hands-on experience is critical to becoming an effective EMS who is clear-headed in crises. Consider volunteering with a local or national organization, such as a fire department or the American Red Cross, respectively. Volunteer options may be short-term (e.g., helping to clear roads and highways after a hurricane) or long-term (e.g., serving as a volunteer firefighter). Note that there is no standard number of hours or years of experience required to become an EMS.

Search for opportunities on the websites of local and national organizations. When an emergency occurs, keep an eye out for requests for volunteer assistance.

Build a Reliable Network

Having a strong network of individuals — particularly those at the local level — can help position graduates for career openings and opportunities when they arise in their communities. Establishing ties in calmer seasons can help support operations when emergencies happen.

Career Spotlight: Emergency Management Specialist

An emergency management specialist (also called an emergency management director) is an individual who steps in to coordinate relief and recovery efforts among the many organizations involved in these phases of the disaster management cycle.

Below, find data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of June 2020:

Why Should I Pursue an Emergency Management Degree?

A degree in emergency management not only provides students with an up-to-date look at the field but also can connect them with a network that supports their future careers.

Learn more about MPH@GW’s top reasons to pursue an emergency and disaster management program below.

Give Yourself a Competitive Advantage With Employers

A graduate degree can indicate to employers that an individual has discipline and time management skills, two very important factors in a career resolving emergencies and disasters. Insights from faculty and hands-on activities in a graduate program can help students sharpen and advance their skills, preparing them to enter the competitive job market.

An online degree program, such as MPH@GW’s online Master of Public Health, is a flexible option for students who are not able to relocate to campus.

Enter a Growing Job Market With a Wide Variety of Opportunities

Emergency managers have myriad opportunities to build new skills and grow as effective leaders. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their job responsibilities can include:

  • Analyzing hazards in a space or community and developing plans to mitigate the risk to people and property.
  • Connecting the organizations and resources providing support in the aftermath of an emergency to people in need.
  • Reviewing the emergency plans of private companies and public sector organizations for efficiency and adequacy.

Find Purpose in Your Ability to Make a Difference

Emergency and disaster management specialists can find satisfaction in a career that is about caring for people in crisis and leading the way toward a safer, healthier future. They have the opportunity to become leaders in their communities — and their services, when necessary, are invaluable.