Emergency Management Degree

When disasters strike, the first question everyone asks is, "What happens now?" Fortunately, an emergency management professional can provide the answers, direction, and coordination necessary to take a community devastated by a natural disaster or other emergency and start it on the path to recovery. But their jobs go beyond the point of impact of a hurricane or the area devastated by a fire, they work to create plans and procedures for responding to emergencies, long before they happen.

What Is Emergency Management?

The last thing anyone wants is a major panic in the face of an emergency. That is why local, state, and federal governments, private companies, hospitals, and other entities prepare for the worst long before it actually happens. In a process called emergency management, an emergency management specialist or director of emergency management coordinates the crisis response of a particular group. Their job is generally divided into four areas of specialization.

Natural Disasters

The time for preparing for a natural disaster is long before the hurricane comes ashore, the tornado touches down, or the earthquake begins. An emergency management specialist can look at the area, examine the likelihood of certain natural disasters, and create plans of action that help the government and its citizens prepare for it.

Crisis response activities may include encouraging people to gather food, water, food, fuel, and cash in the event of a hurricane, or creating a "go bag" should a wildfire begin destroying the surrounding area. However, emergency preparedness for natural disasters does not end with the event. Emergency management specialists help coordinate relief responses, law enforcement, evacuations, rebuilding efforts, and infrastructure restoration that must happen once the disaster is over. Through careful planning and forecasting, these professionals can create procedures for handling everything from restoring power to making sure citizens have ample drinking water.

Technological Crises

We don't often think about technology as posing a threat to our everyday lives. However, our reliance on technology for everything from buying groceries to managing health conditions means a breakdown in technology could plunge our society into chaos. Even more concerning is the fact that a technological breakdown could result in large-scale disasters. We rely on technology to regulate nuclear power plants, hazardous materials facilities, medical waste disposal sites, and oil refineries. Should a system be hacked or a component fail, the environmental impact could be catastrophic. Emergency management specialists examine all threats to systems that rely on technology and make plans for their failure. They also create procedures for preventing issues in the first place and make sure government agencies and private companies are taking necessary precautions to keep the public safe.


Those who remember September 11, 2001 remember a time when emergency response specialists were called on to respond to a threat within our borders. While the American people were caught off-guard, emergency management specialists had planned for such a scenario. Emergency response teams were called to help support those who were a part of the rescue efforts at Ground Zero. Military divisions were diverted into the waters around New York Harbor in case of a secondary attack. Airlines were grounded to reduce the risk of other fatalities.

Emergency management specialists coordinated the efforts of local law enforcement, fire departments, and emergency medical systems to help those who were affected by the terrorist attacks. New procedures, processes, and emergency response plans are in place today to respond to an attack like what happened on September 11, as well as other possible wartime attacks on US soil.

Hostage Situations

During a hostage situation, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies often work together to diffuse the situation. Emergency management directors use the plans and procedures they have already created to keep the general public safe and prevent the situation from escalating. While it is impossible to plan for every hostage situation out there, emergency management specialists can create a general template that law enforcement and first responders can follow. In some cases, they may even work in conjunction with law enforcement to create emergency preparation plans for hostage situations before they ever happen.

The Job of an Emergency Management Specialist

The stages of an emergency management specialist's job are broken into three areas - before a crisis happens, while a crisis is happening and after a crisis is over.

Before a Crisis

An emergency management specialist's job starts long before a crisis even happens. Their focus is to minimize risk to property and people in the event of an emergency or natural disaster. This may require them to examine the local area, the most likely risks to the people that live there and begin addressing those risks in a logical, methodical way.

All of an emergency management specialist's plans must comply with local, state and federal law. Therefore, it's important for them to know those laws. Their degree program may include classes in personal property laws, wartime laws and laws that often go into effect after an emergency.

Before a crisis happens, an emergency management director may meet with local government officials, law enforcement officers, businesses, and residents to get feedback on proposed emergency policies and plans. This important step helps people understand how to prepare for an emergency, what to do if an emergency happens and how to recover after an emergency is over. They may need to ask for local or state governments to put policies into place or create budgets for additional resources in the event of a natural disaster.

Once their plans are in place and everyone has had a say in their creation, the emergency management director trains first responders on how to carry out the plans. They then educate the public on what they can do to prepare for an emergency. This may mean visiting schools and community centers to tell people what they can do to help in the event of a disaster.

During an Emergency

An emergency management director leads the response team during an emergency. They may call for evacuations, open public spaces for shelters, conduct press conferences, and coordinate law enforcement and government responses. They may work with private companies who want to provide goods or services to those in affected areas. They may coordinate the distribution of food, water, and clothing to those who need it.

After an Emergency

Once the initial emergency is over and life has begun to return to normal, an emergency management director will assess the damage, make reports to local, state and federal government agencies, request additional funding for aid, and revise their emergency plans to reflect the lessons they have learned. This is the most important step of the entire process. It helps emergency management specialists plan for future disasters and avoid any mistakes they have made during the current situation.

Skills Needed to Be Successful as an Emergency Management Director

The most successful emergency management director has a lot of skills in their back pocket that make them great at their job. They are able to see potential problems and create solutions in advance. They create plans and policies that work in several situations. In sum, they are great at these things.

Critical Thinking

It's not often that you come across a class in school that forces you to think critically. However, it is a skill you can develop over time. Using logic and reasoning to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of a particular solution requires you to examine the problem from every angle. You can't be emotionally attached to a particular solution. Instead, you have to weigh the pros and cons, look for holes, and try to successfully address the weaknesses in your plan before it is put into action.

Technical Writing

Technical writing is a different skill than writing an essay or a story. Instead of weaving a tale, you have to take complex information and break it down in an easy-to-follow format that anyone can understand. While most emergency management directors work with large teams to create manuals and policies, they may have to write them on their own in smaller departments or when they are advising a law enforcement agency.

Problem Solving Skills

Not only do you have to think critically about the problem, but you may also have to creatively solve the problem you are facing. One of the biggest challenges after natural disasters is a lack of resources. If you are trying to help those in the path of a hurricane, you likely won't have power, running water, cell towers, or WiFi. How do you communicate with law enforcement, disaster relief agencies, the public, and media outlets without these things? That is a problem you have to solve creatively while coming up with an emergency management plan.

Deductive Reasoning

Sherlock Holmes is famous for using the power of deductive reasoning to draw conclusions about criminals and friends alike. A successful emergency management director has it too! They can use what they know about a given situation to draw conclusions about the most likely scenarios in the event of an emergency. They can then create a plan for those likely scenarios to help people stay safe and the government to continue to function. They can also anticipate the needs of the people and work with other public entities and private companies to meet those needs. For example, you may not know that a massive wildfire will cause homelessness to a particular city, but the area's proximity to a forest and several years of drought can lead you to that conclusion. You can then create a disaster plan for that city complete with a procedure for rebuilding it to its former state.

The Power of Persuasion

There will be a lot of people along the way who say that a particular problem or disaster will never happen. Your job will be to persuade them that it will and that they need to take action. That power of persuasion may be in the form of data that shows the probability of a problem. Or it may take the form of an impassioned plea to government officials to begin taking action on something they had not ever thought about. Either way, your powers of persuasion will be tested as an emergency management director.

The Four Functions of Emergency Management

When they strike, emergencies often cause chaos and panic. An emergency management specialist creates plans, policies, and procedures long before a disaster in the hopes that it will be sufficient to maintain the peace in a difficult time. They also work with the public to prepare for natural disasters that may interfere with their everyday lives. These functions include many of the following areas.

Natural Disaster Planning

Some areas naturally lend themselves to natural disasters. If you live in California, you can expect to experience an earthquake on a regular basis. If you live in Florida, you expect to have hurricanes in the Atlantic every summer. The Midwest expects to have a tornado or two throughout the year, especially as spring storms roll through the prairie. What you may not realize is that behind every natural disaster is a series of plans to maintain public safety and keep people supplied with food, water, and shelter while they rebuild. Every natural disaster, from fire to flood, is accompanied by a plan to keep people safe during and after that disaster. Emergency management directors are at the root of those plans. Learning from one disaster to the next, emergency management specialists take what they know about the area, its population, its resources, and the disaster itself and create new plans to help people get back to normal after a natural disaster.

Personal Preparedness Education

While an emergency management director can create a plan for the government or the community, they still rely on everyday citizens to do their part to be as prepared as possible for a natural disaster. In order to help people gather supplies and make a plan for either evacuating or sheltering in place, emergency management specialists spend a lot of their time educating the public. This can be in the form of handouts, television ads, social media campaigns, or public safety announcements in schools and workplaces. They may even work with city or state governments to suspend taxes for supplies for a certain period of time to encourage people to save on things like food and water.

Homeland Security

In the event of a terrorist attack, war, or homeland security threat, an emergency management director may be asked to implement a plan or create a policy to help maintain public safety. Founded in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for public safety and security in all situations. This may include a natural disaster or an incident that involves a technological problem. The Department of Homeland Security employs several hundred emergency management specialists who analyze possible incidents and create policies and plans to keep people safe. Homeland Security may also help local law enforcement during a hostage situation or other local incident that requires more than a local department can give.

Emergency Response

While emergency management specialists are most often associated with large-scale natural disasters like hurricanes or floods, these professionals are also tasked with helping local and state law enforcement improve their emergency response on a smaller scale. Many times, state police forces employ emergency management specialists to help them better meet the public safety needs of their area. They may create plans for preventing violence during protests, adapt traffic citation procedures to better protect police officers from traffic, or help law enforcement agencies train their officers to better meet the physical and psychological demands of their job.

Career Path Options for Emergency Management Majors

There are several opportunities available in emergency management.

Public Sector

In most cases, an emergency management director works for local, state or federal governments. There, they create emergency plans for natural disasters, war scenarios, technological impairments, or terrorist attacks. Coordinating with law enforcement and other first responders, their primary focus is public safety in a time of crisis. The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are the largest employers of emergency management specialists in the federal government.

Private Sector

Other emergency management specialists work for hospitals, private companies, or non-profit organizations to create emergency plans. While these employers often deal with the public and are concerned for their safety, the specialist's focus is a little different. Instead of coordinating large-scale evacuation plans, post-disaster plans, and public preparedness campaigns, an emergency management director working in the private sector is focused on a much smaller population.

For example, an emergency management specialist working for a hospital may create emergency plans health care providers and administrators would follow in the event of an accident inside of the hospital. They would also create plans for what doctors and nurses would do in the event of a natural disaster. They may create safety policies aimed at securing the hospital against technological threats or biological agents. And they may create a plan for coordinating with other hospitals in their system if they needed to transfer patients in an emergency. The division of responsibility is still the same as it would be if they worked for a government. They would create plans for before a disaster, during a disaster and after a disaster, but it would be with a focus on the business, hospital, or organization.

Benefits of an Emergency Management Degree

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, emergency management directors earn an average salary of $74,420 per year. Based on job growth between 2008 and 2018, it is expected that the demand for emergency management specialists will grow by five percent.

While the job outlook is positive for those with an emergency management degree, it does not tell the whole story. As the country's population grows, the need for disaster planning professionals grows with it. Natural disasters, technological problems, and terrorist threats are no longer limited to large cities or major metropolitan areas. As a result, the need for those with an emergency management degree will likely continue to grow with the country's population in areas that may have previously gone unprotected.

Common Areas of Study

While each emergency management program has its own require coursework, many programs have several subjects in common.

Behavioral Psychology

It is important to understand how people reactor to stressors like a natural disaster or terrorist attack in order to prepare them for an unknown disaster. If you can anticipate their reluctance to prepare for an emergency, you can create public education efforts aimed at helping them overcome their fears. Studying behavioral psychology can also help you understand what motivates the people you serve and anticipate problems with evacuation and post-disaster emergency management.

Legal Issues

In order to create policies and plans that are compliant with the law, you need to understand the law. This may require classes in criminal justice, social work, or legal issues that you will face in your job.

Emergency Communications

In an emergency, communication is key. Yet, it's often the part of an emergency we take for granted. When cell towers are down, there is no Wifi, and the power is out, how do you talk to the people you need to coordinate with? Classes in emergency communications will not only teach you how to circumvent the traditional methods of talking to each other, but they will also help you know how to talk to people in stressful situations.

Emergency Situations

From natural disasters to terrorism, you will learn about each emergency situation individually. You will learn about the short-term effects and long-term implications. You will learn how to create plans to prevent them and what to do should they happen. You will examine best practices from the past and learn from the mistakes of others.

Top Emergency Management Degree Programs

In order to become an emergency management director, you will need to have a bachelor's degree, preferably in emergency management. Often, degrees in behavioral psychology, social work, public health, or public administration can be coupled with experience in a related field. To achieve the highest level of your career, you will also need several years of experience working in disaster planning, public health, or public administration. Typically, a job running a department will require a master's degree while some jobs as an emergency management specialist only require an associate's degree.

Earning a degree in emergency management can give you the knowledge and skills you need to be successful in your career. The best programs in the country offer in-depth theoretical classes coupled with practical activities to prepare you for a variety of volatile scenarios. Instructors who have both the theoretical knowledge and practical, professional experience will guide you through a curriculum that is designed to give you the resources you need to ensure the public's safety. Whether you are looking to earn an associate's degree, bachelor's degree or further your career with a master's degree, an emergency management education will offer you skills that you cannot access any other way.

Key Factors When Selecting an Emergency Management Degree Program

FEMA's Emergency Management Institute publishes a comprehensive list of associate's degree and bachelor's degree programs throughout the country. Several schools also offer online master's degree programs as well as an online program for undergraduate degrees. While there is no definitive criteria for the best emergency management program, there are a few characteristics that the best in-person and online programs have in common.

Tuition Assistance

Given the demand for emergency management specialists, many degree programs offer tuition assistance or financial aid to their students. Whether you are looking at an on-campus or online program, be sure to speak with a financial aid specialist. They can help you apply for federal financial aid, scholarships, or grants that can help offset the costs of your degree.

Practical Coursework

It's one thing to learn about something from a book. It is an entirely different experience to practice in a classroom. Be sure the university you select offers courses that have a practical application. You need to be able to create plans, policies, and procedures once you leave the university. The only way to do that is to do write those plans while you are under the supervision of expert instructors.


It may seem strange to search for a university that requires an internship in order to get a bachelor's degree or master's degree. In reality, internships are a great way to gain practical experience, meet potential employers and learn on the job. Look for a degree program that has relationships with the business or government agency you would like to work with. Your internship may lead to a full-time job once you graduate.

Job Placement

Your goal in attending any university is to get with a job at the end of your degree program. The university you attend should help you do that by placing you with private companies and public sector agencies where their graduates have succeeded. For example, Bellevue University has consistently been ranked as one of the best online master's and bachelor's programs for a few reasons. First, they offer a building block approach that prepares their students to work in the field once they are finished with their education. But most importantly, they have relationships with employers that are looking for high-quality emergency management specialists. Once you graduate from their program, you are automatically considered among the top in your field and at the forefront of the hiring process.

A job in emergency management requires you to use every part of your brain. From critical thinking skills to deductive reasoning to creative thinking, you must be able to see a situation, create a plan and then adapt it on the fly as you navigate disasters of every kind. Ultimately, the most rewarding part is helping people at one of the most difficult times of their life and preparing others to better weather the storms.