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Makings of A Disaster: Doth the Emergency Management Professional Protest Too Much?

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA. 

By Stacey Mann

In lieu of my quarterly column, I want to share the below article. It was written by one of my doctoral students concerning emergency management as a profession. I think it is a thought-provoking piece that deserves attention.

Doth the Emergency Management Professional Protest Too Much?

By Alicia GB Smith

Tom-A-tO or To-mah-tO?
PO-tAt-O or pO-tA-taho?
Emergency management professional or emergency management profession? 

In order to be a professional, one must first belong to a profession. The first recognized professions are said to have emerged in the medieval times as vocational specialties, such as military officers, doctors and lawyers. For Americans, professions began in the colonial period and the requirements were special education or training, a journeyman status of learning under a master, then experience and training and mentoring others. Many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence considered themselves professionals: medical doctors, lawyers and scientists to name a few. So why the argument about whether or not emergency management (EM) is a profession?

According to the Harvard Business School, the first Masters of Business Administration (MBA) was established in 1908. Yet in a 1932 speech at the 14th annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business, Professor E.B. Wilson of Harvard directly refuted critics of business schools and argued that they do indeed produce professionals. Why was this address necessary when MBAs had been in the workforce over two decades?

Mann juneIn much the same way, emergency management schools have been producing professionals for years. Yet apparently, there are critics (unfortunately from within, as well as without) of the vocation as a recognized profession. Even as the phoenix of the U.S. EM program rose from the ashes of civil defense, those founders considered themselves professionals and more importantly conducted themselves as professionals.

There are various arguments found online about the definition of EM but a majority seems to argue that emergency management is the business of “managing” people and resources during a crisis. However, any EM professional will argue that it is much more complex and requires skills that an MBA does not completely provide. A stronger definition offered by Thomas Drabek and Gerald Hoetmer is “the discipline and profession of applying 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.” Critics argue the EM community cannot be elevated to a “profession” until certain criteria are met:

Taken separately each of these is arguably important. However, as part of a holistic picture, all of them fall short of disclaiming EM as a profession. One of the key components of a profession is a dedication by its members to continual improvement. While many professional journal articles and op-eds comment on EM as an “evolving” profession, the same can be said of any true profession. In the United States, the military no longer fights using Napoleonic tactics, doctors no longer prescribe “bleeding” to reduce “humors” or “ill spirits,” and lawyers no longer refuse clients based on gender or race. These most recent criticisms against the EM field as a profession are actually signs of a community dedicated to improving itself.

The Principles of Emergency Management.” developed at a workshop under Dr. Wayne Blanchard of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Emergency Management Higher Education Project, lists “Professional” as the eighth of 8 principles. The principle states, “Emergency managers value a science and knowledge-based approach based on education, training, experience, ethical practice, public stewardship and continuous improvement.” While critics of EM as a profession rightfully analyze the extent to which EM practitioners meet the above criteria, it is a fallacy to state because a percentage of the practitioners do not meet the above criteria that the profession as a whole cannot be defined as a profession. Part of the intrinsic value of a profession is that over time it becomes self-policing, meaning that those who do not conduct themselves in an ethical manner or those unable to perform their duties “wash out” of the field or are made to leave the field by competent members. Much like the military, medical or legal fields, those that “flop” rarely get a second chance.

This fact belies the requirement to be recognized by politicians or appointing authorities. Politicians and appointing authorities desire to succeed or to be perceived as successful, thus they appoint people around them (if they are intelligent) who will help them succeed. Anyone not smart enough to put a qualified EM professional or someone who will quickly adopt those qualifications, in a position that requires them, risks failure.

In addition, certification by itself does not constitute professional status. However, it does serve as an indicator that the individual attaining certification is dedicated to the field and willing to persevere through the challenges of becoming certified. The federal government, represented by FEMA, defaulted to the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Certified Emergency Management (CEM) certification as the “minimum level of expertise.” By utilizing a private entity to serve its certification requirements, the federal government alleviates itself of the cost burden and pushes that cost down to the individual. Many articles and opinion pieces in professional journals challenge the CEM’s requirements as extraordinarily burdensome and still not indicative of an individual’s capability to perform. Yet, other federal stakeholders were not invited to the 2007 workshop, so it is yet to be determined that the CEM meets the needs of the “whole of government.” Regardless, individuals incapable of ethical behavior and performance in the field will not succeed in the community even if they are “certified” by an external body or agency.

Aligning EM educational programs nationwide is an admirable concept at the surface. But it does not address the deeper issue of ensuring rigorous and challenging curricula both recognized by an accreditation body and meeting the demands of the EM community and the society it serves. EM higher education foundations reside in multiple disciplines, which is why any appeal otherwise blindly ignores the complexities of preventing, responding, mitigating or recovering from a man-made or natural disaster, especially large scale or intentionally imposed by terrorist organizations or adversarial nations. Much as a capable and flexible military requires numerous skillsets, EM as a community benefits from having members from technical to scientific to mathematics to business credentials, in addition to its social science roots.

Almost a hundred years later, business management schools continue to argue for their existence and demand a continued professionalization of their field, which many (even within the community) still refute is a profession. Yet, the fact remains that most Americans believe business managers require special education and training, should adhere to ethical behavior and train/mentor others. (Interestingly, a codified “principles of business management” cannot be found on any of the prominent business school sites nor is there one created by a federal agency for them.)

In his 2009 book, Have a Little Faith, Mitch Album states, “You are how you act, not just how you believe.” Sociologists hold that people change what they believe by how they act. Therefore, the challenge before the EM community is to continue to hold members to high standards of behavior, demand competence from each individual, and educate and mentor future EM generations. Thus, while the debate of whether or not emergency management is a profession may continue to rage for many more decades, it is indeed an empty one. Americans demand that those responsible for their personal welfare, and their communities’ welfare, not only know the theory and strategy of EM but also know how to execute and apply those capabilities in a proficient, ethical and efficient way in order to save lives, protect property and minimize community disruption. In one word – professionally.


Author: Alicia GB Smith is a doctoral student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Security Studies at National War College, National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. She can be reached at [email protected].

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