Tips for Creating an Emergency Management career. Reprise.

Recently Amber Rushton, a fellow board member at the Ontario Association of Emergency Managers (OAEM), posted a great article from Emergency Management Magazine Online. The article is entitled ‘4 tips for creating an Emergency Management Career’. Even though it is now almost 4 years old it remains sound advice for early-career professionals in the field.

Read the article here: http://www.emergencymgmt.com/training/4-Tips-Creating-Emergency-Management-Career.html

The first time I read this article, I was just beginning my career and I found it helped confirm a number of my own ideas about how to navigate the field. However, now that I am a working professional, I am privileged to be re-reading it with a more critical eye.

Thus, I would like to address 2 challenges I feel are significant, consistent barriers to those wishing to start a career in EM.

Conflation of Emergency Response and Emergency Management

In spite of the title, the advice in the original article blurs the line between fields related to, but not entirely relevant to, Emergency Management. I have found this to be a common occurrence in many aspects of EM, such conflation evident both in the article and in the field at large.

I have taken advantage of a popular meme to help illustrate this point:

I do not think I am alone in feeling that the majority of people, both inside of ‘Tri-services’ (paramedics, police and fire) and in general, have no idea what we do. It is to be expected when the idea is to work in a supporting role, and in a relatively young field. However, it’s frustrating to EM professionals and likely confusing to those who aren’t – especially those who think they would like to be. For example, the last two images above are based on my own early perception and my eventual understanding of what civic Emergency Management work entails.

In short, we need to do a much better job of understanding and clarifying the differences between ‘Emergency Response’ and ‘Emergency Management’. While the above is clearly a simplification and mostly meant in jest, ensuring that people know what they’re getting themselves into should serve the community well in the long run.

This gets even more tricky when we seek out learning opportunities, and especially within volunteer opportunities – both were tips in the previous article.

Contrary to popular belief, volunteering with the Red Cross or taking courses with FEMA are not necessarily that helpful in understanding Emergency Management. While they certainly have a place in early career research and give the student a breadth of understanding, these are often based on response or operational roles – which is only one component of Emergency Management.

The example below is taken directly from the FEMA course titled ‘Emergency Manager: An Orientation to the position’. It is the only overview given of the role (other than a slightly expanded text-based version), but focuses on the more glamorous aspects of response and on-call responsibilities, as follows:

While this is certainly accurate of an Emergency Manager, it fails to communicate the proportion of administrative and planning work involved in the role. The image created is quite a bit more appealing than the reality of real-life job descriptions, such as:

  • Work extended and irregular hours and/or shifts with minimal or no notice, particularly during emergencies and exercises.
  • Develop operational plans for the unit and set priorities and plan and manage the delivery of a range of operational services
  • Develop and maintain strategies to ensure appropriate levels of service and program delivery across the province
  • Provide leadership, direction and manage staff within the unit including: recruitment, section meetings, performance development and evaluation, approval of expenses and vacation
  • Plan and manage financial control of the unit’s budget
  • Coordinate the provision of emergency management advice, policy interpretations, recommendations and information for management, stakeholders and service

– Program Manager, Emergency Management Field Operations, Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services Division. Posted August 31, 2016.

Now don’t misunderstand me here, I love Emergency Management and would very much like to be an Emergency Manager, my point is that we need to understand what we’re getting ourselves into, preferably before we get there.

As I have said in previous posts, building the ‘bridge’ to the field is the responsibility of both the individual and professionals in that field. In the same way, developing an understanding of what it means to be an Emergency Management professional is partially up to the person exploring the career path, but we professionals also have a responsibility to guide and educate those exploring.

The importance of Specificity

The advice provided in the original article is purposely generic, offering little Emergency Management-specific insight and few examples. While this was clearly not the intent, I think it’s worth reflecting on, especially when considering the importance of work experience and that ever-present catch 22 – how to get the experience for a job without having a job.

It’s all very well for early-career professionals to seek internships and volunteer placements, but in my experience it is near-impossible to find opportunities, and even less likely to find ones with direct Emergency Management experience, tools or practice.

The age-old advice is to find a group involved in response, such as the Red Cross. It’s certainly not a bad tactic, as it provides a first-hand look into emergency response operations. It applies in a Canadian context too, unlike some of the FEMA training, with a number of organizations actively seeking candidates;

  • Global Medic: www.globalmedic.ca
  • The Red Cross: Look for Disaster Management or Emergency Response Team (ERT) postings at http://www.redcross.ca/volunteer/volunteer-with-us
  • Shelter Box: Opportunities from data entry to box assembly, and great training for dedicated volunteers http://www.shelterboxcanada.org
  • Salvation Army: Some municipalities rely on Salvation Army more than others, so the opportunity for deployment will vary. Do your homework! http://www.salvationarmy.ca/volunteer
  • Local Reserve forces: While they are not usually involved in local emergency deployment, the local reserve (Army, Navy or Air Force) is a great place to get training and a definite resume boost. You may even have the opportunity to be deployed for large-scale emergencies in other parts of Canada, plus it’s paid. http://www.forces.ca/en

Keep in mind that this experience is usually restricted to response work so will likely involve a lot of duties which bolster your knowledge and understanding of field operations, but few of the administrative or other aspects of Emergency Management work.

I found great success in seeking an internship placement through my program in Emergency Management at York University. If you are a student, you may wish to seek out similar opportunities within your own college or university. Even if such placements are not strictly part of your program, there is a high likelihood that other faculties or programs have already done the legwork, and you could build on these in order to create your own opportunity. Going through an academic institution has many benefits, not least of which is that they can be used for course credits and legal arrangements for such positions are made between the organization and the school. While the down side of this is that they are usually unpaid positions, the restrictions and challenges related to regular job postings such as budget constraints become much less problematic in securing a valuable and relevant work placement.

In either case, I am a huge proponent of ‘paying your dues’ – experience of all kinds has value, so be prepared to accept the good with the bad, the boring and ‘unrelated’. Hard work generally pays off.

My Other Advice

I have mentioned these elusive ‘other aspects’ of Emergency Management a few times now – if response work is not the answer, then how exactly does one find these skills? The answer depends on the type of career you’re looking for; Business Continuity, Civic Emergency Management, Non-profit response work etc.

No matter what path you wish to pursue, I’d recommend two additional pieces of advice:

1) Test the waters.

Knowing what you don’t like is as important as knowing what you want from your career. If you don’t know what you want at all, then knowledge is all the more important. If you find an opportunity to test a potential career path, take it. Make time to explore many areas of EM, book informational interviews with professionals from both within and outside of your interest area, and make sure you come prepared to ask questions. You may discover aspects of the job you find interesting, and at the very least you have increased your understanding of the field as a whole, the qualifications needed, and a lot of other useful information which may come in handy down the road.

2) Relationships are key

To gain experience in any of the ‘pillars’ – Mitigation, Preparedness, and Recovery, is not easy. The reality is that you may have to wait until your first job in EM to really explore these concepts.

However, there are plenty of experts out there who live this stuff every day, in a vast array of different EM career streams. My advice; seek out a mentorship program and/or professional development program specifically geared towards Emergency Management. If this is unavailable, seek out and join professional organizations such as the Ontario Association of Emergency Managers (http://www.oaem.ca), the International Association of Emergency Managers Canada (http://www.iaem.com/home.cfm?c=Canada), or the Disaster Recovery Institute (http://www.dri.ca/index.php).

The value of such programs/associations is something the previous article missed; they help you to build relationships with existing Emergency Management professionals. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that you will struggle to navigate the field effectively without such relationships.

In my mind, becoming part of the community holds the greatest value in your quest to start a successful career in the field. Even if you cannot see any conceivable reason to pay money to these groups, it is worth it just for the opportunity to meet with and begin to develop relationships with others in the community. Plus, as a student member, the rates are often a fraction of the normal amount.

In closing…

That an article could remain sound advice for early-career professionals for so long is reassuring to me. That said, I hope I have added a few tools for you to use along the way. In closing, I would be remiss not to mention that my door is, of course, open to anyone who wishes to seek me out. I look forward to hearing your experiences, and perhaps to sharing a coffee with you sometime!

All the best.

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