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Aligning Emergency Management Education and Practice

By: Thomas E. Poulin

One of the challenges for graduate public administration programs is that, often, those entering such programs have little, if any, academic foundation in public administration. As a rule, they tend to enter public service in a technical field such as engineering, finance, or criminal justice, later pursuing an advanced degree either to increase their potential for promotion or to gain skills after being moved to a higher level within the organization. This may create a disconnect between the course work and the technical aspects of their field. The same issues may be found in emergency management.

As a distinct discipline, emergency management remains an emergent field. Over the past few decades, it has expanded – rapidly so, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As the discipline expanded, so has the pool of college programs crafted to prepare learners to practice, study, or teach in the area. A great many of those entering these programs have experience or education in other areas, which are often only tangentially associated with emergency management. This means emergency management programs are often filled not only with people from emergency management, but from traditional public safety agencies, the military, the private sector, social services, and any number of other fields. The challenge for academic institutions is not only to support learner success by having them master the topical materials, but to support their ability to function in a real-world environment. This can be challenging, given the scope of the field and the potential disconnect between the previous experience of learners and their chosen field of study.

In its idealized form, emergency management is a comprehensive approach to making communities disaster resistant and disaster resilient through mitigation, preparation, response and recovery from all hazards. Consequently, the field includes such diverse functions as community planning, flood control engineering, development of human resources, curriculum development, crisis management, debris removal, and stress counseling. Emergency managers must be, by design, the ultimate generalists. While it is tempting to attempt to cover all aspects of the field in depth, that is unrealistic. Seeking to make emergency managers technical experts in allied fields, such as engineering, management, psychology and meteorology, is simply not achievable – nor is it necessary. Emergency management education should provide an overview of the discipline, focused at developing the capacity to bring technical experts together to resolve an issue. While it might be desirable for the conductor of an orchestra to know how to play all instruments, it is more important they know how to bring all the musicians together to perform in harmony. Mastering each instrument is unnecessary to that end. The same concept applies to emergency management.

In speaking of a military operation, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said that “you go to war with the army you have.” While some chided him for this remark, there is an underlying truth to it. While it might be wise to debate how an organization should be developed, when it is time to begin operations, one must work with the organization they have. This concept is critical to emergency management. Critical analyses of events such as Hurricane Katrina, September 11th, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Haitian earthquake all stress that there are vast improvements that can be made in the practice of emergency management, most notably during major events. Undoubtedly, the same will be found with Hurricane Sandy. While it will be important to discuss this in educational programs and the development of government policy, focusing on it to the exclusion of how to operate within the current system may be counter-productive. Political science programs may discuss the concept of a shining city on the hill, but they also discuss the practical challenges of policy development and implementation within our current system. Academic programs in emergency management must strive to develop a similar balance.

Last, to truly support the capacity for learners to succeed in the real world, we need to integrate some form of practicum. This might take any number of forms. One might develop a formal internship program, providing an opportunity for a broad introduction into the practice of emergency management. Obviously, this requirement might be waived if the learner has substantive experience in the field. While an internship would be the optimal approach, they might not be a viable option for some. Another approach might be to tie their academic work to some form of professional training and experience. Within the context of emergency management, the former is not too difficult, given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a number of courses on-line. Completing several of these courses, which are widely used by practitioners to develop their own professional skills, would give learners insights into the mindset and practices of real world professionals. An alternative to this might be to have learners volunteer to serve a role in a disaster exercise. Though limiting the learner’s exposure to the response phase, it would still provide exposure to the practical challenges of emergency management, aiding the learner in contextualizing their academic studies. The goal of this would not be to make the learner a full-fledged practitioner, but, like a medical doctor, would permit them to engage as an observer or assistant to an experienced physician performing a surgical procedure – exposing them to the challenges of putting textbooks materials into practice. 

There are a number of benefits to higher education, including the development of critical thinking skills that may be applied to any endeavor. Higher education can prepare individuals to enter a field, or to refine their skills if they are already serving in that arena. To support the success of learners inside and outside of the classroom environment, educators need to insure that their efforts are aligned with professional practices. To be truly effective, academics need to insure that their efforts are tied to the real-world, providing materials that are relevant and applicable to the practices and problem-solving challenges of professionals. To support this, professionals need to insure that their practice reflects evidence-based management, founded upon empirical research that has analyzed and identified best practices based on objective criteria, insuring that their efforts contribute to the optimal outcome – a disaster resistant and resilient community. Without such a partnership, the benefits of higher education and the practice of working professionals may fall short of the goal, providing the community with a lesser level of service than is possible.


Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, serves on the core faculty of Capella University’s School of Public Service Leadership. He may be contacted at [email protected].  


Images courtesy ofhttp://www.mybirdie.ca/files/eae414f72a0fbe52d1a45afe126d8e24-17901.php and http://www.uvm.edu/~psych/?Page=grad_school.html&SM=discovermenu.html.

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2 Responses to Aligning Emergency Management Education and Practice

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  2. Shami Dugal Reply

    November 21, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I have advocated the involvement of professionals in MPA courses so that academic education and practical skills can be combined. In addition, it would be beneficial to have students, who may not have worked in a particular field of choice, carry out an assignment that ties theory to practice and make that an essential course in the program.

    My undergraduate degree is in CO-OP Math, and the co-op part underlines the fact that we worked a 4 month term after a 4 month school term which provided practical skills and put some money in our pockets to pay for school.

    The Co-Op department at the U of Waterloo (Canada) is unique in having started this practice in the early 60’s I believe and now you can find co-op graduates in industry all over the world. It is a well known and respected program.

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