Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A Career in Emergency Management

When people are seriously injured they expect good, professional medical care to be readily available, but curiously when major emergencies have turned into mass-casualty incidents we have been content to leave their management to people who are completely lacking in formal qualifications. In Britain today that is now changing, and so is the assumption that we live in a land free of disasters. Recent years have seen foot-and-mouth disease epidemics, widespread river and coastal floods, North Sea storm surges, sudden snowfalls, and power blackouts, to name only some of the national emergencies that have occurred. The government is concerned about possible future epidemics of SARS or influenza, and the potential for chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological (CBRN) terrorist attacks. Hence, in November 2004 it passed the Civil Contingencies Act, the first really significant legislation on peacetime emergencies to reach the statute books since 1948. The Act places a burden on local, unitary, county, regional and national authorities to prepare for disaster. It also requires the private-sector providers of some of our basic needs to plan for emergencies, so that they can guarantee the continuity of electricity, gas and water supplies, public transport, and other municipal services.

In addition, with the appalling and widespread suffering engendered by the Asian tsunami of 26 December 2004 there is a new commitment to disaster work overseas, and the loss of many British lives in that particular catastrophe has provided yet another incentive to strive for a safer world.

A fledgling profession

At last, emergency planning and management in Britain are moving towards acquiring the status of a fully-fledged profession. County authorities now maintain a chief emergency planner, who will probably have a small staff at his or her disposition. Local and unitary authorities may have an emergency planning officer, though in the smaller towns he or she may also have another job to do within the local authority's structure. The 12 regions of the United Kingdom each have resilience teams whose job is to plan for emergencies in a co-ordinating role. Disaster management is an important emerging field both in the UK and world-wide.

Paradoxically, despite the obvious imperatives arising from disaster, the field has acquired different names in different parts of the world. 'Disaster management' is commonly used in the UK; 'civil protection' is employed widely in Continental Europe, Russia, Latin America and Canada (it has the advantage of translating easily into Romance languages). France also uses 'civil security' and Switzerland 'civil defence, though the latter term is usually reserved for older methods of organising civilian populations to survive armed aggression by a foreign power, not the modern preoccupation with natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. In the USA the preferred terms are 'emergency preparedness' and, increasingly, 'homeland security', which reflects a strong preoccupation with the threat of domestic terrorism. Allowing for differences of detail, it is essentially all the same field.

The profile of the practical expert in this field (call it what you will) is changing rapidly as the level of professionalism rises. In the past, the typical incumbent was a white, middle-aged man with a military background who took up emergency preparedness as a second or third career. His training in civilian emergency management was usually negligible and the methods he used bore a strong military imprint. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and some military men have proved to be outstanding emergency managers, but times have changed, and so have expectations regarding how disasters are managed.

The modern emergency planner is likely to be younger and have a much more diverse background than hitherto. Women have proved to be particularly adept at acquiring the necessary skills--and no less firm than men when it comes to getting things done in difficult circumstances. As the military ethos recedes, so a distinctly civilian form of emergency management comes to the fore, with a stronger emphasis on democratic participation. This is vitally necessary, as the problems of avoiding or abating the effects of disaster are so onerous that the general public will have to take some responsibility for looking after its own security. Emergency managers are increasingly being trained to liaise with the public and mass media in order to achieve this.


The modern emergency planner will have gained academic qualifications in the field. In this respect there are several potential strategies for acquiring them. For example, it is now possible to take a bachelor's degree in the field and hence enter it straight from school. As the subject of emergency preparedness is a very eclectic one, first degrees may be either a BSc or a BA. A 'hard' science BSc will probably furnish additional skills in engineering and mathematics that can be useful for practical work in the field and for such abstract matters as calculating the probability that future events or situations will occur. A 'soft' science BA will provide skills in social sciences, which are particularly useful for examining and dealing with people's responses to disaster. Both types of degree will provide skills in management. In this context, it is worth noting that, although there is some overlap, the skills needed to manage disaster are not quite the same as those acquired in a business management degree or MBA.

A second form of training in the field is to take a master's degree in emergency planning and management. Entry is usually open to the holders of many different kinds of first degree, including, obviously, one in disaster management. The advantage of a master's degree is that it offers advanced training and education to students who already have a relevant first degree. As emergency preparedness is a 'lateral' field of knowledge that spans as many as 35 different traditional academic and professional fields, many qualifications are indeed relevant. The resulting graduate has some specialised knowledge, a good grounding in theory (for example, regarding the nature of risk and vulnerability to hazards), acquired skills in management and co-ordinating people's activities, and enough knowledge of the many specialised disciplines that contribute to the field to be able to communicate effectively with their protagonists--architects, engineers, urban planners, psychologists, and so on.

Armed with either a bachelor's or a master's degree, a typical graduate employed in emergency planning and management will manage ordinary risks on a daily basis, prepare for emergencies (for example, by drawing up, disseminating and testing plans designed to cope with them) and will occasionally have to manage the emergencies themselves when they occur.

Employment prospects

The UK Civil Contingencies Act will have the effect of creating additional jobs for emergency planners at the national, regional, county, local and unitary authority levels. Furthermore, the need to maintain business continuity in private companies has created a further demand for experts in civil contingencies, especially as major public services have been privatised and the companies responsible for them have a statutory duty under the Act to ensure for continuity of service. Moreover, the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) legislation based on the European Union's Séveso directives has created a demand for people who are competent to pan for managing--or better still, avoiding--technological disasters such as toxic materials releases and explosions in factories.

In the private sector the larger companies may have in-house expertise in business continuity and disaster preparedness. This is increasingly necessary as there is abundant evidence that companies afflicted by disaster of any kind, from loss of data and customer records to destruction of assets and loss of public image, have a much better chance of pulling through if they have made business continuity preparations beforehand. Hence there is also a growing consultancy business in bespoke emergency planning, as well as in training in how to activate and use the plans.

Work experience

It is axiomatic that emergency preparedness cannot be learnt only in the classroom. Expertise is gained by a mixture of academic learning and practical experience. University courses increasingly recognise this by giving students field or work experience (and preferably both), internships in emergency planning offices, release periods or the opportunity to do dissertation research in appropriate workplaces. They also bring in practitioners from the emergency services and planning offices as guest lecturers.

The rest must be learned on the job. Here there is a third route to education--professional development courses. These can be of two kinds: general courses for non-graduates and specialised or higher-level courses for graduates. They are short courses, usually taken in modular form, part time by day-release from work, and they focus on particular aspects of emergency preparedness, such as search and rescue, business continuity planning, and emergency psychology.

So important is it to reach out to the practitioners that universities have started to offer part-time, distance learning or blended learning options on their main courses. This recognises the fact that the main clientele for disaster management education is already employed in the field: the new recruit--or old hand--in an emergency planning office; the employees of police, fire and ambulance services who want to deepen their knowledge of how to handle major crisis situations; and the company security executives who need to gain more expertise on how to manage contingencies.

A dangerous world

Many developments are conspiring to make the world a less safe place for its inhabitants. Climate change is leading to more intense storms, population growth is relentless in hazardous areas, the global rise of terrorism is posing a serious threat to security and stability, to name but three sources of future disaster. At the same time there is an increasingly coherent movement to tackle the risks seriously, and emergency preparedness is an important part of this. It is sad to have to admit that "the worse it gets, the better it gets," but as the 21st century wears on there will certainly be more jobs and brighter career prospects in disaster management and we can only hope that this helps make our world a safer, more peaceful and caring place.

[UK, 2004]