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The real storm chasers: Emergency management specialists

As Hurricane Irene rushed ashore, Jim Savitt put on a pot of coffee and prepared for some long days. Savitt was one of 60 emergency management specialists and support staff working with the Red Cross to man an operations center in New York that coordinated response and recovery activities after the storm hit.

"You have to be prepared to disrupt your life for a bit," said Savitt, who is also an associate professor at Empire State College. "You may be on for 12, 24 or 36 hours straight during an emergency."

A natural disaster may be a once-in-a-lifetime event for area residents, but for emergency management specialists, it is a way of life. When not responding to emergencies, they spend their days fine-tuning plans and training for the unexpected event that could be waiting right around the corner. From terrorist attacks to pandemics to flooding, emergency management specialists are the ones working behind the scenes to minimize damage and restore normalcy.

Working in the background

Although firefighters and law enforcement officials are most often associated with emergency response, they are not the only ones deployed to a disaster site. Behind the scenes, emergency management specialists are busy coordinating activities to ensure a quick response and a speedy recovery.

Emergency management specialists tend to be unsung heroes. When everything goes smoothly, most people don't give a second thought to who is behind the response team. But if things go awry, the whole world sits up and takes notice. Witness the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in which an estimated 20,000 people were left stranded and sweltering for nearly a week at the Superdome.

According to Kenneth Rondello, the events in New Orleans didn't represent poor planning, but they do show that even the best plans don't always translate into real-world success. Rondello, the academic director of emergency management programs at Adelphi University, was one of the emergency management specialists deployed to help with the response and recovery to Hurricane Katrina.

"No matter how well planned and well rehearsed a disaster plan is," said Rondello, "it will never operationalize the way you expect."

Evolution of emergency management

While emergency management is recognized as a specialized field today, that wasn't always the case. Historically, Rondello says, emergency management duties fell by default to security personnel. Later, the federal government established the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, but a series of devastating hurricanes and earthquakes in the 1960s and 1970s highlighted the need to create a more unified response to natural disasters.

In 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was created, and the modern era of emergency management began. While jobs in the field have traditionally been in the public sector, private companies are increasingly turning to emergency management specialists to help them reduce risk and resume business quickly after disaster strikes.

"More and more, we see emergency management specialists hired by private businesses and utilities for their business continuity plans," said Rondello.

Degrees for emergency management specialists

Originally, emergency management specialists did not need any specific education to work in the field. However, as the profession matured, there came a realization that individuals needed certain knowledge and training to ensure an effective response to emergency situations.

Now, those interested in a career in the field can choose from associate, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs in emergency management. While specific jobs may have different requirements, both Savitt and Rondello agree that most employers see a bachelor's degree as the minimum needed for emergency management specialists.

Those interested in the field should have a cool head and good managerial skills. In addition, the ability to react quickly is essential.

"You need to adapt on the fly," said Rondello.

Bob Carlson, a hazardous waste instructor and owner of the consulting firm Green Knight Environmental, also recommends that those interested in emergency management develop an affinity for science. Although degrees in emergency management don't place a heavy emphasis on science, basic understanding of scientific principles can make specialists more effective.

"If you are handling an oil spill," said Carlson, "you need to know where it is going."

In addition, Carlson stresses emergency management specialists should have excellent communication skills and pursue as much training as possible.

Job growth in emergency management

Although there has always been a need for emergency management services, the demand for these professionals has been heightened since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects positions for emergency management specialists to grow 22 percent from 2008-2018.

"It's definitely a calling and not for everyone," said Rondello, explaining that most emergency management specialists work out of a desire to provide a public service and not necessarily for a big paycheck.

The BLS reports the mean annual wage of emergency management directors and specialists was $60,330 in 2010. The top ten percentile earned incomes of more than $96,000.