Ashley Morris

Jul 25, 2021

7 min read

Catching YOUR BIG BREAK! into Emergency Management

The field of emergency management is growing with more students looking to find a way to start fulfilling careers in disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.

The American Meteorological Society Board of Operational Government Meteorologists (AMS BOGM) and American Meteorological Society Committee on Emergency Management put on a emergency management job hunting panel this past week. You can view the entire webinar here: https://us06web.zoom.us/rec/play/fBHHmtfcNjczmdMKB1RYuldsdFAYRf8db1eRbO7rYKaKCGNffe1t0WOhQuHCTqgrZ_AkhDRxvDTftHHY.Cc8KvUsyLouWACgx?startTime=1626717675000&_x_zm_rtaid=aVL1cvw8R-m7r6Gp1iBHTA.1627235417196.1473fedce5ac227203f1cce33a86dd40&_x_zm_rhtaid=125.

Below is a summary of some of the topics discussed, along with some insight and tips based on my experience in pursuing local level emergency management.

Networking

As with most jobs, networking is absolutely essential. A strong professional network can provide opportunities to learn about new job openings and provide referrals for new positions. While building a network, the biggest goal is to connect your name with a given skill-set you have. For meteorologists, this may be weather forecasting, GIS, coding, or writing. For others, this may be a research topic from a course or a thesis. When an agency need or opening comes up, you want people to think of you to fill that need. This will allow jobs to be forwarded to you based on being able to fill a need or be a good fit. Besides the position benefits, a strong network also helps you learn more about field-related training, research, and job experiences. Who doesn’t love all of the great brain-storming conversations we have on #EMGTwitter?!

Networking ideas presented in the webinar include:

  1. Joining professional associations and participating in meetings, committees, conferences, and networking events. This includes weather-related associations like the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and the National Weather Association (NWA). This also includes emergency management related associations like the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) and state EM associations (VEMA, MDEMA, EMAT).
  2. Reach out to local emergency management offices. It’s great to meet your local professionals. They are working near you, and they also are the most accessible. Feel free to reach out to them as an up-and-coming student or recent graduate looking to dive into the field of EM. This initial contact could get you a tour, a volunteer opportunity, an internship, or even more! NOTE: While persistence is admirable, be sure you reach out respectfully and show appreciation for their time. Many local offices are small and very busy, especially after COVID. While nearly all EM’s want to help, some may have a busier schedule than others. If someone shakes you off, don’t be discouraged. Just keep looking to make connections. Another great idea is to attend a community event, such as a CERT class, outreach event, or SKYWARN session. It gives you access to the emergency manager who is more likely to have some time to speak with you. Bring a business card to the event and introduce yourself after the class. Avoid doing so before — the emergency manager may need to do tasks to make sure the class or event is ready to go.
  3. Find a mentor. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional you know for career advice or as a future protégé. Find professionals who have a similar background to you or who are currently working in the same specialty of emergency management. There are MANY passionate emergency managers who are also passionate about helping others break into the field (myself included). Firstly, we know how important it is to lend a helping hand to the next generation of emergency managers to grow our field. Secondly, many of us have also previously struggled with breaking into the field and we want to help others avoid our experiences. Reach out professionally. As with point 2 above, don’t be discouraged if you are declined. Rejections often are not personal. The professional may have a heavy workload, non work-related struggles, or minimal bandwidth. Keep keep keep reaching out to others!

Keep in mind that a lot of networking can be done on a digital landscape as well! I am passionate about our Twitter emergency management network community (#EMGTwitter) as well as LinkedIn. Having a professional digital presence is a great place to start! When I first started my career a few years ago, I learned SO MUCH from more-seasoned professionals and the EM discussions they had with me. Learning is growth — plant a seed!

Volunteer, Shadow, and Internship

It’s not enough to only have connections. The knowledge and experience to do the job is absolutely essential. This was one of my biggest mistakes coming out of school. I thought having a masters and a undergrad degree in the STEM field would be enough to get jobs that did not often require any college degree. Boy was I wrong! It took me nearly 60 applications (3 months) to get my first interview opportunity with a local county emergency management agency. Along the way, I was rejected for internships due to not enough experience. If possible, really try to tour, shadow, volunteer, or intern during school. Grades, degrees, and FEMA Independent Study (IS) courses aren’t enough!

  1. Try different sectors of emergency management. Emergency management has many different sectors of work: government, private, business continuity, contracting, healthcare, public health, university/education, etc. Try a few to see where you want your focus to be. Different sectors can have different focuses.
  2. Try new things. Be open to working in new subject areas or emergency management specialties. Not only will you gain a more well-rounded skillset, but you might fall in love with a new area! This goes for positions as well. Sometimes, you may just need to settle for a position to get started in the field. While the position might not be your “dream” emergency management job, it will allow you to start learning from within the field. You will also be eligible for EM training (FEMA/state), regional conferences, local networking, and regional position openings. The same applies to grant funded positions. While grant is less-secure, it may be the position you need to get practitioner emergency management experience on your resume. My first position was an LEPC/Tier II EM specialist grant position. While I was worried I wouldn’t get to do as much weather-related topics, I ended up learning A LOT about how we plan for hazardous facilities and fell in love with hazmat preparedness and response. I use the knowledge from that first position in my current role as a planner.
  3. Highlight your skills. When approaching or applying for experience opportunities, it is really important to emphasize what you bring to the table. This is ESPECIALLY TRUE if you are coming from a nontraditional background (meteorology, STEM, non-first response). Describe how your strengths and background can help with a certain agency project or need. For my first position, my atmospheric science background (weather forecasting), GIS, and social vulnerability research was what made me stand out. The county EMA was looking for GIS for the Tier II project, and they also saw value in having a weather specialist. Needed skills can help fill the lack of other entry skills, but it does depend from agency to agency. Practice molding your education, training, and experience to fit what your future director might be looking for. Eventually, you will find the perfect fit!

How did you get the role you are in now?

The panelists again cited their network, volunteer opportunity, or training as a key to success. I would echo this and emphasize the importance of getting hands-on experience before or during the job search.

  • Know different names for different positions while searching. EM-related jobs are called emergency managers, EM coordinators, EM directors, EM specialists, EM technicians, Preparedness specialists, emergency planners etc. I set up Indeed to pull jobs weekly for all of the above titles. This will maximize your search for positions.
  • Do some homework and take FEMA IS training courses. While these certificates might not mean a ton in regards to “experience,” being able to talk the talk and know common field terminology is an advantage. Learn the incident command system (ICS) well and work to understand it. Be able to describe and explain key processes before your interview. The work will help.

WRAP-UP

Trying to get into an emergency management position may seem trying. It was for me, so you are not alone in that experience! Keep in mind that the field is newer and still trying to be defined in terms of relevant experience and requirements (Hopefully we have a standard some day!). That being said — expect job requirements, training, experience, and other aspects to vary WIDELY from city, county, and state. Some areas emphasize more response experience, while others embrace college education. Both are important, so try to be as well-rounded as possible.

Be sure to make those connections. Find a mentor. Continue to learn. Join online mentoring activities or groups. Go to conferences (if able) or participate in conference discussions on social media. GET. THAT. HAND-ON. EXPERIENCE! Volunteer. Do whatever it takes to understand the conceptual side of EM as well as how it is applied in the public or private sector.

Lastly, don’t give up! Be persistent. Many of us had similar struggles, and we are here to help! Reach out to us for guidance. We would love to help you!