Emergency Management: Basic Educational Principles for an Evolving Global Profession


FEMA emergency response

Finding sensible and useful commonality among and between national emergency management programmes in different areas of the globe is a challenging task. Throughout the United States and wider global community, there remain several intriguing anomalies which both reinforce and undermine the efforts of emergency management executives, practitioners, scholars and students. As serious efforts continue in many countries to both define and shape the profession of emergency management, several interesting issues and dilemmas haunt that enterprise. The outcomes resulting from these various programmes and gestures is uncertain because the international community of emergency management practitioners and scholars have yet to reach consensus on what comprises the field's fundamental set of skills, knowledge and expertise, along with what its primary educational structure.

There are many dimensions to this issue which are not so much insurmountable as they are problematic. On the one hand the field of emergency management, which often includes preparing for terrorism as well as a variety of natural and manmade disasters, is ripening worldwide and becoming more explicitly a top-tier profession requiring consummate skills, education and experience. However, on the other hand we lack uniform standards, common criteria and unifying principles which define the field and guide its evolution as a legitimate profession. Within the United States and elsewhere in Europe, the UK and Asia, there seems to be a general lack of consensus within and among academic, educational and practitioner communities internationally about what themes and subjects constitute the fundamental issues and boilerplate subject matter requirements of study for an academic degree in emergency management. Further complicating this issue is the question of how one can best acquire skills, build expertise and sharpen knowledge to the extent that one can further advance his or her career in emergency management to the widest possible degree.

Here the central questions are obnoxiously simple: what should an emergency management curriculum include? What combination of training, experience and formal education is appropriate for those seeking a career in emergency management? Can we readily identify the appropriate courses, experiences and skills? Can we agree on what matters and what does not when designing programmes to further professionalise the field? What is the best mix of emergency management and academic programmes which highlight effective anti-terrorism measures, programs and policies? Can college curriculums be sufficiently comprehensive to cover earthquake preparedness, mass casualty co-ordination and border security policies in an integrated manner? If emergency management is truly a profession can we articulate and specify the process and hierarchical pathway for persons seeking to reach their professional goals through the education system? Or must we always credit actual experience more heavily in determining who is best qualified to provide managerial leadership for emergencies?

Provision Proliferation

The profusion of qualifications in the United States illustrates the incoherence. There is a lack of agreement between major universities and the federal government's Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the two professional associations representing America's emergency managers (NEMA and IAEM) about the core content and curriculum for those pursuing a career in this field. One such association (IAEM) even offers its own Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) programme as an alternative to college study. If that were not enough, over a hundred different graduate and undergraduate programmes have sprung up all over the US in conjunction with an explosion of online provision. This further complicates the basic question: where will our future experts come from?

The United States has two major federal departments to deal with national crises and emergencies. FEMA handles all natural and technological disasters while DHS focuses primarily on disasters triggered by terrorism. However, if Homeland Security and Emergency Management are in fact operational cousins, how do we integrate them sensibly in an academic setting? At present there is hardly any agreement on what constitutes bona fide education in both fields. Local governments by default have allowed themselves to hire and retain emergency managers while states and the federal government have tilted to a blend which includes significant expertise in anti-terrorism practices and policies. Should we then expect future emergency managers to be adept at both? Moreover, any blended curriculum must bridge the 'all hazards' world and the anti-terrorism perspective where best practices and practitioner insights hold as much sway as guidance found in textbooks. We must also concern ourselves with finding competent, experienced and seasoned instructors who understand both the obvious and subtle challenges embedded in the field.

Core Skills and Competencies

Students of emergency management are expected to cover a spectrum of issues, both in collegiate-level programmes and the wide array of available courses. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Risk and vulnerability assessment, emergency planning and management
  • Mitigation and preparedness issues, 'all hazard' programmes and strategies
  • Emergency exercise design and evaluation
  • Infrastructure protection and preparedness
  • Emergency response functions and tasks
  • Post-disaster recovery operations
  • Public-private collaboration strategies
  • Emergency communication principles
  • Anti-terrorism policies and programmes
  • Law enforcement and intelligence operations
  • Managing public health crises
  • Handling special hazardous material incidents. 

As in other circumstances, these desirable traits and qualities can be culture-bound and much work is needed in the global marketplace of ideas to fashion a credible set of standards and requirements which can be internationally recognised and universally acknowledged. This is no easy task and it remains for the global community of existing emergency managers, together with thoughtful academicians, to hone and shape the common agenda.

In taking up the challenge of finding the 'gold standard' for emergency managers of the future, as well as calibrating what we expect from our current roster of practitioners, it is necessary to identify key traits. Top-notch emergency managers often exhibit:

  • A professional manner exemplifying leadership and skilled managerial habits
  • An 'all hazards' philosophy for emergency management
  • Skills as a strategic planner and contingency thinker
  • Competence and creativity in devising resilience programmes
  • Innovation in better emergency practices and technologies
  • Capacity to render objective risk and vulnerability analyses
  • An understanding of the complex nature of anti-terrorism programmes
  • A broad and interdisciplinary perspective on emergencies.

Globally this is just a beginning, because neither the Hyogo Protocol of 2005, nor the work produced thus far by the UN's ISDR (disaster reduction programme) activities has placed the role of emergency manager education and professional development on its agenda. While it is true that some nations have embarked in this direction (the UK, South Korea, selected Scandinavian states and the EU), no unifying consensus exists on the agenda or the way forward. The 2005 Hyogo Protocol calls for efforts:

[to enhance] sustainable development, reduce poverty, promote good governance and engage in disaster risk reduction by ... building capacity at national and community levels to reduce risk [and] to share good practices.

Yet there appears to be no mention of how the future cadre of emergency managers and practitioner academics will play a role in that process. In particular, this ignores the role of national government and the capacity of local cities to handle emergencies as a synchronous team. The dilemma of national versus local responsibilities, the role of the military and the involvement of all sectors of the economy are questions which have not been exhaustively examined as part of this process.

Defining Resilience

Of greater concern is the lack of global consensus on the concept of 'resilience' and its connotations for the role of emergency managers. Hyogo says 'resilience' is:

the capacity of a system, community or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt by resisting or changing in order to reach an acceptable level of functioning and structure ... [reflecting the] ... degree to which society is capable of organizing itself to increase capacity for learning from past disasters for better future protection and risk reduction.

But what about the impact on the national community? What is the role of national and local emergency managers in devising a resilience strategy? This deserves exploration and further examination by both practitioners and academics. Hyogo emphasises the need to promote a culture of prevention, disaster risk reduction, better risk assessment, and proactive measures; but the question remains as to who will provide the leadership and sustaining energy for such an ambitious effort. It seems that only emergency managers can do so. 

Enhancing Co-ordination

There is currently a real risk in the UK that the bifurcation between anti-terrorism and conventional emergency management might inhibit coherent planning and response in a co-ordinated and unified manner. The role of police-led programmes, when contrasted with national programmes staged out of Whitehall, may fall short of matching desired resources, level of effort, co-ordination and emergency response. To the contrary, it remains to be seen whether better synergy, co-operation and strategic co-ordination would helpfully sharpen and redefine what emergency management means both in rural and urban Britain if harmonisation were enhanced.

In 2001, the EU created the Community Civil Protection Mechanism, which relies on the Brussels-based Monitoring and Information Center (MIC). Through its Emergency and Crisis Coordination Arrangements (CCA), the EU manages to share information, co-ordinate responses and exercise decision-making at the EU level in conjunction with its new Joint Situation Centre (SitCen). However, there remain many puzzling elements of this organisational structure obscuring whether true collaborative integration is taking place and whether divergent views in national capitals and the EU council enable mobilisation and response as a systematic collective. Not enough experience has accumulated yet to determine if CCA internal procedures permit it to actually co-ordinate and manage a crisis while national and local emergency response elements struggle with the management of the disaster itself.

The UK seems to be taking reasonable steps to tackle the issue via the Emergency Planning Society's Core Competencies project. The overall EPS effort seems keenly aware of the unresolved educational issues which affect and influence the emergency management practitioners' challenge. They seek to bring more professional standing to emergency management; enhance existing academic focus; find viable educational streams; train what they call 'resilience practitoners'; and to enable them to transfer between employment sectors. These are good measures moving in the right direction.

Moreover, perhaps the UK and the US could jointly provide the stimulus of leadership in this arena and foster wider global discussion and examination of the field of emergency management. Promoting and advocating the refinement and development of professionalism in emergency management makes sense and furthers the overall global aims of ISDR and Hyogo. The US and the UK could draw attention to the neglected status of emergency management and its future professional and educational growth by placing special emphasis on its educational underpinnings and devising strategies and programmes designed to advance and accredit the practice of emergency management, its collegiate validation and its eventual professionalisation.

Robert McCreight
Professor of Crisis and Disaster Management
George Washington University Institute of Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management

Response from the Education Standards Group

Emergency management education in the UK has been high on the agenda for the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), the Emergency Planning Society (EPS) and the Scottish Resilience Development Service (ScoRDS) for a number of years. This has been evidenced by the groundbreaking partnership between the CCS and Leeds University Business School, the EPS Core Competences Project, National Occupational Standards for Civil Contingencies (NOS), the Scottish Professional Development Award and more recently the establishment of an Education Standards Group (ESG) within the EPS and the ongoing development of a set of subject benchmarks. So it was with much interest that members of the ESG read Robert McCreight’s paper ‘Emergency Management: Basic Principles for an Evolving Global Profession’.

There are a number of issues to raise in response, particularly regarding McCreight’s focus and suggested content of an academic curriculum; his description of the UK system; and his suggestions of US-UK leadership in stimulating debate and development in this area of academic study. It is worth stating at the start, however, that as a group of academics and practitioners we welcome the debate to which this paper alludes and look forward to participating in a global discussion in what is, in our view, a pivotal and an extremely important area in the development of emergency management as a profession.

Firstly, though, we dispute McCreight’s contention that homeland security and emergency management should be integrated in an academic setting. Whilst issues of terrorism and homeland security are amongst the major drivers behind the concept of a ‘resilient UK’ and should be acknowledged as such, in reality it is devastating floods, transport accidents and health emergencies that are more likely to confront Category 1 and 2 responders. We believe that terrorism and security more properly belong to the realm of the police and security organisations and as such are not necessarily a major part of an emergency management curriculum.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 identifies sixteen Category 1 and Category 2 responders, only four of which are ‘blue light’ services. There is also provision under the Act for co-ordinating bodies at the local level in the form of Local Resilience Forums (LRFs). Therefore, with regard to a developing academic discipline, our subject benchmarks embrace a multi-agency ethos where co-ordination and co-operation are the norm.

Finally, we quite naturally applaud the comments regarding the progress achieved by the EPS in the last few years but are concerned by the simplistic way its achievements are considered by McCreight. We agree that if emergency management is to be recognised as a profession, not only does the academic underpinning need to be in place but it also needs to be recognised as a discipline in its own right. In our opinion, it is here that global consensus matters.

Eve Coles
Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Protection
Chair, The Emergency Planning Society Education Standards Group




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