I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts for anyone who might be interested in a career in emergency management, during National Careers Week, taking place between 6-10 March.
How did I find emergency management?
When I was little I wanted to design rollercoasters.
There wasn’t much call for that in the UK, so my school work experience aged 14 was in a car factory! I realised there would be a huge requirement for engineering knowledge and recognised that my mathematics skills probably weren’t up to scratch, so it was back to the drawing board.
With wall-to-wall media coverage of the Millennium Bug, I spent a lot of time hearing about the apocalyptic events that would happen on 1 January 2000. I became interested in how to prepare and respond to those kinds of major disasters. I didn’t know it was a career option but knew it was an area of work that I wanted to be involved in. The terrorist attacks in America in 2001 were a significant and formative event for many in my generation of emergency management.
I suspect that there is a whole swathe of people, who, having lived through COVID are also considering how they might get involved to reduce the impact that these events can have on our lives.
Emergency management has become more popular but remains a niche profession which doesn’t have much airtime. I hope this post gives a bit of a flavour of what emergency management is like as a job, as well as my tips on breaking into the field.
What do you enjoy about your job?
We generally like order and control. Disasters and emergencies are messy. Disasters are terrible events that affect many people in unimaginable ways. However, I have seen so many examples of the best in people and communities when they are going through the worst times.
I view my role through a lens of supporting and facilitating that natural human response to look after each other. A large part of being an emergency manager is about bringing some coordination to a chaotic situation. There is a lot of satisfaction which comes from being involved in making sense and supporting the management of a chaotic situation.
What is an emergency manager?
The good people at Prospects have a page on emergency management, which sets out that “you’ll play a role in protecting and maintaining public safety” by anticipating and planning for major incidents “in local or central government, or in a public body”.
But it is so much more than that!
During the pandemic, I wrote a list of 81 things an Emergency Manager needs to know. The breadth of things included on that list gives a flavour of the many different directions that emergency management can take you in, and in which you can come into emergency management.
Emergency management is risk management. It is health and safety. It is security. It is communication. It is about data. It is logistics. It is policy development. It is training. Depending on which sector you work in the balance between those things will be different, but fundamentally, emergency management is about people.
For a long time emergency management was the domain of retired military and firefighters. That experience still has incredible value, but there are more diverse pathways into the field than there used to be, which is brilliant, because with new people come new ideas and a more effective and inclusive response.
What does a typical day look like?
Gosh, that’s a tough one. The thing about emergencies is that they are inherently unpredictable (although some are more predictable than others). There tends to be a fair amount of variability day to day depending on what might be happening or risks that are the current concern.
A typical day also looks different depending on what organisation you work for. However, generally speaking, a typical day will involve lots of teamwork and communicating with different people both within your organisation and beyond. In my experience, there are a lot of meetings, but also frequent external site visits and equipment checks too. Obviously, there are incident response days too. Whatever plan you might have had for the day goes totally out of the window and it’s all about doing your bit to support the people impacted, and then the ongoing recovery and learning processes.
Where to seek out more advice?
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is just one route to your chosen career. Or that there is a factory which spits out carbon copies of emergency managers.
The beauty of emergency management is that it touches the edges of so many other functions. This is also it’s Achilles heel – it is hard to define and codify. Where possible, try to use that to your advantage. Everyone has something valuable they can bring to emergency management, what are you bringing?
If you’re interested in working in emergency management then here are my top 5 tips on steps I would take with hindsight:
- Talk to people working in the field. Be prepared that many people simply won’t respond to your emails or prospective emails. But somebody will somewhere. Find emergency managers on social media (there’s a small community of us on Twitter, but probably hold off on sending lots of LinkedIn requests until you’ve met people in person). Volunteer to attend scenario training events to meet potential new colleagues. Join a professional body, like the Emergency Planning Society, as an associate or student member and attend their events (which is a bit easier now with more online events).
- Take advantage of work experience placements and any training. Don’t worry too much about it being in a directly relevant field. You’re not going to become an emergency manager in your two-week placement, but you can start to learn about yourself, about workplaces and about what you are looking for. Whilst there may be restrictions based on age or location, try to take advantage of the free training by bodies such as Skills for Life. Simple things like having a first aid qualification, awareness of information handling principles or data analysis skills can set you apart from others.
- Research what potential future employers are looking for. Think about how you can demonstrate that you are a good candidate. Entry-level emergency management roles will generally be looking for people with great organisational skills, the capability to prioritise work, project management skills and effective communication. What examples can you use to so you can do that? What things could you do to build even more skills in those areas?
- Talk to a careers advisor. Whether you’re still at school or college, progressing through university, unemployed or looking for a change in career direction at a later stage, careers advisors can offer support and signpost to opportunities. They probably won’t know the ins-and-outs of emergency management, but can help you make high-quality applications and help you to identify skills you may be less aware of.
- Learn and reflect. Employers will want to see that you have some understanding of the field, but you don’t need to memorise Wikipedia articles, you won’t be tested on that. You might choose to read about things, or watch documentaries on Netflix, or listen to podcasts. Keep an eye out for the lessons from notable disasters and what the current risks might be and why. This can be referred to as ‘seeing the bigger picture’ and it’s a skill given how broad emergency management can be.