The Professional Emergency Manager

Some people claim to be professional emergency managers because they have been working in the field for many years. Other people claim to be professional emergency managers because they have specialized training or education in emergency management topics. Yet, other people claim to be professional emergency managers because they act professionally and hold titles such as emergency planner, trainer, exercise specialist, homeland security manager, or one of many other titles. It is important to consider definitions and criteria on which to base the terms “professional” and “emergency manager” to determine the attributes of a true professional emergency manager.

Theories & Definitions The modern concept of professionals and professionalism comes from two early sociological theories of a profession versus an occupation – the trait-model theory and the structural-functional model theory. The trait-model theory, which was developed in the 1930s,entified common attributes or traits that distinguished an occupation from a profession, including: a common body of knowledge; specialized education and training; benchmarked performance standards; continuing professional development; professional association; defined ethics and a code of conduct; certification or licensing; and selfless service/giving back to the community. Sometimes the trait model includes additional attributes such as: commitment to excellence; specialized language/buzz words; language skills; professional appearance/dress; bearing; honesty/integrity; dependability; completion of projects on time and budget according to standards; accountability; social skills/etiquette; reliability with commitments; self-motivation; respect; self-discipline; and teacher/mentorship.

The structural-functional model theory subsequently was developed in the 1950s and 1960s to provide a theoretical link to the various attributes described in the trait model, by taking selected traits and adding specific requirements to demonstrate attainment of those traits. For example, the model requires competency testing (oral, written, or performance examination) for the trait of certification or licensing, and a specialized college degree or an advanced degree for the trait of specialized education.

Current definitions reflect this thinking. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s 2014 online version defines a profession as “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.” It defines a professional as a person “conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession” or “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.” Further, it defines professionalism as “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.”

Thomas E. Drabek, professor emeritus at the University of Denver, said in his 2010 book, “The Human Side of Disaster” (p. 216), “A requirement of all professions is a solid knowledge base.” This knowledge base is developed through scientific research and is learned by professionals through training, workshops, seminars, and formal education. Other requirements of all professions are legitimate professional associations and a professional territory domain.

Many occupations defined as professions have their own set of requirements and methods of demonstrating compliance, and will employ a combination of attributes from both models. Though these professions employ many of the same attributes, they tailor them based on their specific needs and desires. For example, many professions require a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degree from an accredited college or university, but some also require: (a) a specific degree; (b) specialized advanced education such as graduate medical or law degrees; (c) a minimum amount of training, but the required training subjects are based on the specialized knowledge, skills, and abilities of the given profession; and (d) specialized examinations, but the topics and methods of examination will be different. Finally, each profession has its own set of ethical standards and codes of conduct, but they focus on different things.

The Professional Side of Emergency Management Before discussing what makes a person a professional emergency manager, there must be a clear definition of “emergency manager.” People and organizations define the term emergency manager differently because, according to the 2013 edition of the National Fire Protection Association’s “Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs” (NFPA 1600), each has its “own focus, unique mission and responsibilities, varied resources and capabilities, and operating principles and procedures.”

For the purpose of this discussion, the term emergency manager will be defined according to the NFPA 1600 as the individual who manages the “ongoing process to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to, maintain continuity during, and to recover from, an incident that threatens life, property, operations, or the environment.” The term manager here differentiates the person performing management functions – planning, organizing, leading, and controlling – related to the emergency and disaster process from the person performing tactical-type tasks such as first responders.

According to the above definitions, a professional as someone who meets selected trait attributes attained or demonstrated in a specified manner and an emergency manager is the person who manages the ongoing process for an agency or organization. The next step is to combine these definitions in a way that distinguishes the professional emergency manager from other professionals.

The Emergency Management Institute’s 2002 Student Handout and later documents cite Drabek’s definition that “emergency managers are professionals who practice the discipline of emergency management by applying science, technology, planning and management techniques to coordinate the activities of a wide array of agencies and organizations dedicated to preventing and responding to extreme events that threaten, disrupt, or destroy lives or property.” This definition, though, does not describe specific attributes of the professional emergency manager.

Since emergency management began, the federal government did not have a standard for emergency managers and neither did the individual states and state emergency management associations other than the U.S./Canadian standard for emergency management (NFPA 1600) and the International Organization for Standardization’s standard for “Societal Security – Emergency Management–Requirements for Incident Response” (ISO 22320:2011).

In the late 1980s, the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM, formerly the National Coordinating Council on Emergency Management) began the process of defining professional benchmarks andentifying specific attributes of a professional emergency manager. First, IAEM established the Professional Standards Advisory Council consisting of subject matter experts from all areas of emergency management and related fields. Then, that council conducted a job analysis and developed a set of knowledge, skills, and abilities related to the critical tasks emergency managers perform.

Next, the council researched other professional certification programs toentify commonalities among them for inclusion in an emergency management certification program. Finally, all the data was analyzed and synthesized into a report for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Since FEMA was not chartered to implement the council’s recommendations, IAEM took the council’s findings and recommendations and created the first certification program for emergency managers – the Certified Emergency Manager® (CEM®) credential, which has been offered to emergency managers since 1993 and has grown into an international credential.

More Than Just a Title Based on the findings and recommendations of the council, IAEM determined the minimum professional attributes of emergency managers and incorporated them into the CEM® program. IAEM periodically reviews these attributes and adjusts them to avoid contradicting the state-level and business expectations for emergency managers and existing emergency management standards. These current professional attributes are:

  • Adherence to the IAEM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct;
  • Experience in comprehensive and integrated emergency management;
  • Specific experience in an actual disaster or emergency management exercise;
  • Professional recommendations;
  • A four-year college degree;
  • Specialized emergency management training;
  • Specialized general management training;
  • Problem-solving skills;
  • Written communication skills;
  • Knowledge of prevention, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation as related to emergency management programs;
  • Knowledge of emergency management codes, legislation, regulations, plans, policies, or procedures;
  • Support to and growth of the profession of emergency management; and
  • Successful completion of a comprehensive emergency management examination.

Although these are not the only attributes of a professional emergency manager, they provide a strong foundation and, when adequately documented and approved by IAEM, earn the CEM® credential, but there are more. FEMA’s Emergency Management Higher Education Project sponsored development of the Principles of Emergency Management, which provide eight additional attributes of a professional emergency manager: comprehensive, progressive, risk-driven, integrated, collaborative, coordinated, flexible, and professional, which ties back to the attributes for the CEM® and encourages continuous improvement. In addition to these attributes and the general trait-model attributes that apply to any profession, verbal communication skills and punctuality are important.

There is a multitude of ways to describe or define a professional. The trait-model theory and the structural-functional model theory show how society ascribes certain attributes that define a professional. Particular occupations and its members – through professional associations – ascribe additional attributes that distinguish the occupation from other occupations and professions. The total sum of attributes a person possesses and demonstrates is what defines a professional.

Therefore, a professional emergency manager is more than a title, more than a certain number of years working as an emergency manager, and more than specialized training and education on emergency management topics. The professional emergency manager is a person who combines these attributes along with many other qualitiesentified by professional associations.

Daryl Lee Spiewak

Daryl Lee Spiewak, CEM, TEM, MEP, has been an emergency manager for over 30 years. He is an emergency management consultant now and serves as the CEM® Commission’s lead trainer. He is a past president of the International Association of Emergency Managers and the American Society of Professional Emergency Planners.



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