Growing Our Own:
How can we find the next wave of Emergency Managers?
By Jim Mullen
“ My goal for our discipline is that 20 years from now, my resume won’t qualify me to do the job I currently have”
– a truly iconic (now retired) state director – not me!
How can emergency management directors assure opportunities for those people who, over the next 20 years, will hopefully make people wonder why any of us ever had those jobs?
A career in emergency management, once an afterthought or an accident, has become an attractive possibility for people in mid-career or even those just beginning their professional journeys. Academic degrees and/or credible certifications in emergency management or related fields abound; advanced educational programs offer a variety of avenues for one to pursue credentials. Those are all decent preparatory factors in acquiring a credible resume, but many uniquely qualified persons, particularly younger people attracted to our discipline and brimming with potential, still find it frustrating as they seek to enter emergency management.
Good emergency managers come in all shapes and sizes. Many in my era found themselves in emergency management quite by accident. Nothing in my background, on paper, suggested I was a perfect fit for directing an emergency management office – but in a sense, everything that I had experienced previously, professionally and as a volunteer, had prepared me.
My academic training was in student personnel administration. I thought my professional “ceiling” was to be a Dean of Students. Instead, my career path included stints as a student financial aid director, an ombudsman for a governor, a criminal justice planning administrator (we caught a murderer in a burglary “sting”!), an invaluable tour in Seattle’s Budget Office, and directing a neighborhood planning division before an “interim” assignment in Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management which forged a 30-year connection with that discipline. Along the way (mostly in a volunteer capacity), I worked in organizational politics in Illinois and Washington State, stepping away once my emergency management duties were too important to be skewed by partisan political activity.
What are the realities hiring authorities must confront?
It is not perverse or nefarious: practically speaking, emergency management directors, seldom blessed with an overabundance of staff resources, just want the best fit for their agencies. “Experience bias” favors those from “similar” disciplines – namely military, police, fire service. In itself, that is not a bad thing – many of my most valued employees in emergency management were drawn from those ranks. However, there is a pool of potential contributors to an organization that are excluded by these legitimate “preferences” – those include young, newly minted college graduates and those in mid-career who have discovered emergency management as a compelling career choice.
What should prospective candidates do to pique the interest of hiring authorities?
An answer to the “experience tripwire” that served me well in my first job search was “I have no experience, but neither do I have bad habits. I work hard, listen closely, and learn quickly – knowing that there is much that I do not know that your organization can teach me.” It eventually worked!
One cannot invent experience – you either have it or not. The qualities that will make a solid emergency manager often have little to do with academic or even professional credentials – emergency management has become a problem-solving enterprise – navigating political environments, and anticipatory judgment is not taught in very many graduate schools, though they do teach some things very well! The ability to function under pressure, though, is only addressed through difficult lived circumstances, and one always wonders, as I did, how I would react in a crisis. Integrity and honesty, prerequisites for emergency managers, sometimes are difficult to assess in an interview.
When conducting “final” interviews, I tried to learn how candidates had responded to stressful or complex situations, whether in emergency management or elsewhere. I frequently learned more from an account of past failings because we know wisdom flows from mistakes made – and acknowledged. If you listen closely – you might just identify a diamond in the rough that can be shaped to your organization’s specifications.
What can a hiring authority do?
Increasingly complex disasters keep coming; we will need to develop a professional cadre of career emergency managers to manage them. Even though an accurate recruiting pitch might be “the hours are long, but the pay is low,” many still will seek a place in our discipline. We should help them.
I would challenge city and state directors to look for creative ways to acquire temporary talent that might grow into permanent employees. I would like to see a partnership with FEMA Region 10 that supports such a program, with a joint funding requirement to share the cost among jurisdictions willing to take part. As the probationary period concludes, a network of cities, counties, states, and even feds and the private sector can share their hiring needs, employ those who are good “fits,” and validate my retired colleague’s wish for obsolescence. It’s time to grow our own!
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Jim has spent 3 decades in emergency management, including 12 years at the local level as director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and 8 and a half years as Washington State’s Emergency Management Division Director. Jim retired from state service in March 2013. Jim also served as President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from January 2011 to October 2012. He is currently sole proprietor of “EM Northwest Consulting” based in Seattle.