Emergency Management Career Overview

Emergency Management: A Staple to the Public Health Sector


Terrorist attacks, massive natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, pandemic threats to public health from Covid-19: all in a day’s work for those in emergency management.

Emergency managers are on the front lines when it comes to coordinating the response to a natural or man-made disaster. They’re responsible for saving potentially millions of lives, a serious responsibility for people who are serious about their careers.

Day-to-day work for emergency managers can include:

  • Gathering data for modeling to develop emergency plans
  • Developing emergency management and evacuation plans
  • Drafting hazard vulnerability assessments
  • Planing and orchestrating drills and training exercises
  • Coordinating responses between different departments

Emergency managers are necessary at many levels of society. For one emergency event, an approaching hurricane for example, many sectors must be ready with their own emergency plans, including schools, hospitals, prisons, businesses, emergency services, and government. Each one of those has an emergency management staff ranging from directors to data researchers.

The most common emergency management positions are with government agencies at the local and state levels, such as:

  • Law enforcement and emergency response departments
  • Public health departments
  • Emergency management and homeland security departments

Careers in emergency management are accessible at all levels of education and experience, starting with a high school diploma or GED and going all the way up to the doctoral level of education.

To really establish a career trajectory in emergency management you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree. Beyond that a relevant graduate degree can make the difference when you’re applying for senior positions.

As you work on gaining the education and experience to move into managerial senior positions you can also start thinking about emergency management certifications. These are required by select states for more senior-level positions, though can often be earned within a set time frame after hire. They’re usually optional. Earning a relevant certification can make you a more competitive candidate.

Step 1 – Earn a Relevant Associate’s Degree and Gain Experience

Jobs with minimal education and experience requirements that will give you an advantage when applying for higher-level emergency management positions include:

  • Radio dispatcher at an emergency call center
  • Any job that involves liaising with people from different departments or cohorts
  • Response, rescue, and recovery jobs
  • Jobs that involve project management and team building
  • Positions that involve inventory development and management
  • Any job that involves research on local, state, and federal laws

It also goes without saying that if you want to work in emergency management, you should get certified in basic first aid and CPR.

If you’re starting your education at the associate’s level, relevant programs of study can include:

  • Emergency management, planning, and preparedness
  • Administration or public administration
  • Public safety
  • Homeland security
  • Business
  • Management
  • Health sciences
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Step 2 – Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Management

In recent history emergency management as an academic discipline has grown, especially since the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. Right now there are approximately 80 bachelor’s degree programs and minors in emergency management nationwide; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tracks them on this directory.

Typical subjects you’ll encounter in an emergency management bachelor’s program include:

  • Disaster response and recovery
  • Emergency management and homeland security
  • Logistics management
  • Organizational communication and public speaking
  • Hazard mitigation, preparedness, and disaster recovery
  • Professional and intergovernmental administration
  • Leadership
  • Terrorism and natural disasters
  • Chemical, radiological, and biological hazards
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for emergency management

An important part of many emergency management degree programs is a supervised internship where you can gain real-world experience in the field. This is a great opportunity for putting theory into practice and developing professional contacts.

If there’s not an emergency management degree program in your area, majoring in a field like public safety, the health sciences, or business-management can also be relevant.

Having a bachelor’s degree is a requirement for some emergency management certifications.

Step 3 – Start Applying for Emergency Management Jobs and Consider Graduate School

Once you’ve earned your degree you’ll be well poised to begin applying for emergency management jobs with your local or state levels of government.

You probably won’t be competitive for managerial positions in emergency management until after you have at least a few years of relevant work experience under your belt. Academic theory is one thing; putting it into practice in the real world is another. As you gain experience you’ll make professional connections and hone the concrete on-the-job skills you need to move up the job ladder with promotions.

You can go far in emergency management with just a bachelor’s degree and a smart work ethic. But gaining a relevant graduate degree can help to break into the top-tier positions. FEMA maintains this list of approximately 59 graduate degrees and graduate certifications in emergency management.

Emergency Management Certifications

Some states require –and often prefer– managerial-level candidates to be certified. There are different types of certification programs:

  • Some are managed by states
  • Some are offered through state-level professional associations
  • Some are managed by national certification organizations

Each state or local emergency management department can determine its own hiring policies and whether or not certification for managerial-level positions is required, along with which certifications are recognized.

In addition to certification programs developed by states or state-level professional associations, there are three main national certification organizations:

International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), which offers:

  • Associate Emergency Manager (AEM) certification
  • Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification – requires a bachelor’s degree in any subject

DRI International, which offers its certification stamp-of-approval for continuity as it relates to:

  • Businesses
  • Industries
  • Business vendors
  • Business auditors
  • Cyber infrastructure
  • Healthcare providers
  • Public sector organizations
  • Business risk management

FEMA, Emergency Management Institute (EMI), offering several certificates including:

  • Professional Development Series (PDS)
  • Advanced Professional Series (APS)
  • Continuity Excellence Series (CES)
  • Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience
  • Integrated Emergency Management Courses (IEMC)

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

In addition emergency management positions at the local and state levels, there is also FEMA.

The nation’s premier federal emergency management department, FEMA came into being as an independent agency towards the end of the Carter Administration, and after the 9/11 attacks was placed under the control of the Department of Homeland Security, where it remains today.

Its national response capabilities are made up of specialized teams and have responded to events including:

  • Severe storms, flooding, and landslides
  • Hurricanes and tornadoes
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Pandemics

It sponsors emergency management training programs and serves as a world hub of information and expertise when it comes to emergency management. You can find a list of current vacant FEMA positions here.

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Professional Resources

You can find additional information about emergency management career opportunities by checking with your state’s local professional emergency management association, public health department, or homeland security and emergency management department.

Additional national resources are available through the following: