Getting Hired as an Emergency Manager
BY: Janusz Wasiolek | January 17, 2017What does it take to become an emergency manager? First, emergency management is a white-collar, professional job. The days of the retired firefighter turned emergency manager are fading quickly, replaced by a new breed of highly credentialed, educated professionals whose main career field is emergency management or something very close to it. This is happening because of a combination of governments requiring certain education and experience levels for positions of responsibility, and an industry push toward a greater focus on standards and education.
What that means to the prospective emergency management job seeker is that the core competencies of an emergency manager are only slightly different from that of an engineer, an accountant or an attorney (so much so that many emergency managers started out as engineers, accountants and attorneys). Skills such as clear writing, oral communication, critical thinking, problem solving and project management are highly transferable and form the basis of a professional career. Conversely, if a candidate’s writing skills are poor or they can’t demonstrate the ability to brief a project plan during an interview, the odds of them being hired are marginal at best.
Writing, thinking and communication skills are inseparably linked to presentation, presence and attitude. These are skills and characteristics that should be perfected well in advance of submitting a resume or attending an interview. What do quality presentation, presence and attitude look like? Any decent job-seeking site will just call them the basics of a good interview. This includes showing up on time dressed in a suit and tie, shaking the hand of the person with whom you are interviewing, acting respectfully yet presenting your own ideas, and having a positive attitude about starting the job. Candidates need to look and act the part if they wish their future employer to take them seriously, especially if this is their first job.
Perfecting the art of professionalism takes time, effort, and yes, a bit of money. A few tips to consider:
First, resumes should be reviewed and practice interviews critiqued by someone who will be critical of performance. Best friends and relatives are generally poor at giving constructive feedback. They tend to put their desire not to hurt feelings above providing productive criticism. Educators and professional colleagues are often a better bet. Just be sure to thank them for their time.
Always show up to an interview at least 15 minutes early. It is the respectful thing to do, allows for a margin in case of “poor building design,” and lets you have a casual (yet often invaluable) conversation with potential future colleagues prior to the interview. You may even get a free cup of coffee out of the deal.
Spend the money on a professional suit (grey, black or navy), white shirt, leather business shoes and tie. Then have the suit tailored. Yes, this will cost you around $1,000 total, but trust me, it is the best investment you will make for starting a career after graduation.
Follow up interviews with a “thank you” email (assuming correspondence up to this point was by email, which it usually is), and be sure to follow up about two weeks after the interview if a decision was not yet made.
If this sounds like general job-seeking advice, that is because it is. But it is also where a majority of emergency management candidates trip up and land at the bottom of a two-inch-high stack of resumes. But what about skills specific to emergency management? This is an emergency management article after all, right? Let’s break this up into four categories.
Experience Versus Education
What is more important? This is a chicken versus egg question, because often one is required to get the most of the other. Many entry-level jobs require a few years of experience to even be considered. Nonsensical as this may seem, the part that is often left out is that it does not have to be paid experience, nor does it necessarily have to be experience in an emergency management position. It just has to be passably relevant to the position.
All education and experience is not equal either. A candidate with a four-year degree from a nationally recognized, not-for-profit, regionally accredited residential university who completes a summer internship or two in emergency management has a much higher chance of getting a job than an individual who took every FEMA independent study course available. Online education has its place. YouTube has saved me thousands of dollars in home and car repairs. However, online education alone will not make a great emergency manager. The profession operates on the dynamic interaction of humans under time and resource constraints. That type of knowledge and skill can only be taught with a significant amount of face-to-face interaction. More directly, online education is great for awareness but poor for teaching people how to put ideas into practice. That’s why virtually all of FEMA’s advanced emergency management and incident command courses are taught face-to-face either through certified training officers or by a FEMA instructor.
With regard to experience, I am often asked where someone looking to get started in the emergency management field should look for experience. Unfortunately there is no one right answer. Some resources that may be available are local emergency management outreach programs such as CERT or the Medical Reserve Corps, local emergency management educators such as ones at community colleges or universities, volunteer groups, police department “Citizen Academies” or connections gained through firefighting or EMS. There are dozens of opportunities in every community, but the catch is that they are never the same between two places and discovery takes considerable effort. Keep asking, keep looking online, keep meeting people, and make good impressions with anyone you meet. It can take months to get a foot in the door, but the odds will eventually work out.
Concepts Versus Rhetoric
This may be better called the, “Explain in plain English test,” or “If you can’t explain it clearly, you don’t understand it well enough.” Emergency managers love their jargon. They love it so much that even FEMA’s own acronyms, abbreviations and terms handbook is an acronym itself, called the “FAAT Book.” Even though the terms change with new administrations, the core ideas behind emergency management have changed little in the last decade or three.
For the candidate, that means understanding the functions, objectives and goals of emergency management at the conceptual level. A candidate who can articulate why there is a National Response Framework or what role an emergency manager plays during a snowstorm is far more valuable than a candidate who has memorized every core capability or Emergency Support Function. Want the best test for this? Tell your parents you want to be an emergency manager, explain to them what it is you’d like to do, and then have them explain it back to you. Unlike feedback on a resume, this is a time when a relative’s feedback will be valuable, but for very different reasons. If the parent, aunt, uncle or friend cannot explain back the ideas the job seeker just articulated, then the job seeker should work on understanding the concepts a bit better. Emergency management should (and does) make sense at an intuitive level, but the baggage of proprietary terminology often makes concepts difficult to understand even for experienced practitioners of the field. It is easy to get caught up in the professional vernacular when simplicity of words and thought will do.
Telling Versus Asking
A former boss of mine once said, “The interview does not matter until the candidate starts asking me questions.” Questions indicate how much the candidate has been paying attention, the amount of preparation they did, and if the candidate can demonstrate a critical thought process. Ask questions related to specific activities performed by the organization such as, “How does your organization do community outreach to non-English speaking populations?” or “What were the outcomes of your last major functional exercise?” Candidates should prepare questions to ask prior to the interview, make notes on what questions to ask while the interviewer is talking about the job and organization, and ask follow-up questions even after the interviewer has given an explanation. A more conversational interview is often a better interview.
Vision Versus Historical Perspective
Ultimately what a candidate should demonstrate is a well-thought-out vision rather than a, “We should have done this” view of the past. A good interviewer will ask a forward-looking question such as, “How do you think you could contribute to this organization,” and this should be the candidate’s time to shine. They should have specific things in mind they wish to accomplish, such as improving outreach to populations that may be disproportionately affected by disasters, or implementing technology to assist in tracking of jurisdictionwide resources. Good organizations reward creativity and initiative, and look for candidates who demonstrate both.
The takeaway to all this is that applying to emergency management jobs is not all that different from applying to any other civil service, consulting, or other public-sector or public-sector support (consulting) professional job. If candidates submit a resume and cover letter that would not get an A+ in a college writing class, their odds of getting an interview are very slim because the job market is incredibly competitive. Even with a perfect resume and cover letter, a typical candidate will apply to dozens of jobs before he or she gets an interview. The profession is still too new to have established, objective professional and performance standards, where candidates can be all but guaranteed a job if they rank high enough in their graduating class. Keep trying, keep applying, and keep perfecting resume and interview skills. As a businessman once told me, “Your job is to always be prepared for your next job.”
Janusz Wasiolek spent more than a decade in the emergency response and management field starting as an EMT in Illinois, and winding up in Washington, D.C., doing situational awareness coordination and preparedness assessments work for FEMA. These opinions are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org.