When bombs detonated near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013, nearly 300 people were injured. Medical, law enforcement, and security personnel immediately sprang into action to mitigate the damage. Though no single person was in charge of emergency response efforts during this complex situation, individual agency leaders successfully limited injuries, apprehended the suspects, and prevented widespread panic amongst spectators and city residents in its aftermath. How was this possible? Through the help of emergency and disaster management professionals who are trained to handle the unexpected.
Natural hazards, public health emergencies, security threats, and other issues that threaten public safety happen constantly. Thanks to climate change, emerging technological advances, and other global shifts, emergency and disaster management has become a higher priority than ever for a wide variety of organizations, from local governments to healthcare companies. Here are some of the top careers in the field and how you can step into one.
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What is Emergency and Disaster Management?
The UN defines an emergency as an event that can be addressed using the resources on hand, while a disaster is one that requires external support. Hurricanes, for example, are classified as disasters because the communities affected must request help from a wider range of organizations than those available locally.
It’s up to emergency and disaster management professionals to coordinate the response to these situations—and to do their best to avoid them in the first place, when possible. Their training helps them to identify threats before they happen, react to emergency and disaster situations, and help implement policies to decrease the possibility of future damage.
Roles and responsibilities vary, from directors who help create response and prevention strategies to field personnel who implement them. Industries also differ dramatically and can include disaster relief, cybersecurity, and homeland security, among others within the public and private sectors.
“A lot of firms are recognizing, both at the individual and community level, that many of the challenges they’re facing are ones that require a more holistic security perspective,” says Daniel Aldrich, director of Northeastern’s Security and Resilience Studies program.
The following careers are among the most popular when it comes to meeting these challenges.
3 Top Careers in Emergency and Disaster Management
As more organizations recognize the importance of comprehensive emergency and disaster preparedness and response, the availability of careers in this field will grow. By 2028, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects jobs for emergency management directors, preparedness coordinators, planners, and related roles will grow by 5 percent, on par with most other jobs during the same period. Here’s what to know about how you can prepare for them.
Homeland Security Officer
Homeland security roles include Secret Service agents, intelligence operations specialists, and mission support specialists, among others. These professionals often work within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with jobs available in cities far beyond Washington, D.C.
“They’re thinking through what kinds of shocks the Department of Homeland Security might have to handle, not just in terms of things like terrorist attacks but also broader challenges like cybersecurity,” Aldrich says.
Responsibilities: The primary goal of a homeland security professional is to identify and mitigate security threats to the U.S. This typically includes analyzing data and traffic patterns to predict where shocks may occur, intercepting threats before they can cause damage, and securing vulnerable geographic areas. During a disaster, personnel may be deployed to affected areas to support response efforts.
Outlook: Demand for homeland security professionals, like all emergency and disaster response roles, is rising. The average annual salary at the DHS is $74,682, though actual salaries vary depending on the type of job you choose and can reach as high as $100,000.
Education and Training: Most roles will require a master’s degree in a relevant field, such as emergency and disaster management, as well as significant security experience. Others, such as transportation security officers, may not even require a bachelor’s degree and can be a good way to begin collecting experience.
Program Manager for Response and Recovery
More and more organizations are concerned not only with large threats, such as natural hazards, but with how internal emergencies will be handled. As a program manager, you’ll be able to enter a variety of workplaces, from hospitals and healthcare facilities to local government, to help them handle all types of emergency and disaster situations. In addition to enacting emergency response plans, these professionals also help build resilience against future emergencies and disasters.
“This kind of job is for someone who thinks broadly about all the risks we face,” Aldrich says.
Responsibilities: Program managers work closely with other emergency response professionals to develop emergency response plans. They also lead trainings on the implementation of these plans to ensure that everyone knows their role in an emergency or disaster event and can help lead response efforts.
Outlook: Governments and other public organizations, nonprofit entities like the Red Cross, and private companies all employ program managers, giving you plenty of options if you choose this role. Job titles, specific responsibilities, and salaries will vary, though the average is around $72,079.
Education and Training: A bachelor’s degree and significant experience may be enough to help you land the job, but a master’s in emergency and disaster management or a related field can give you a competitive advantage and accelerate your career growth.
A security analyst does not only collect data on potential threats—they also contextualize them, helping their organizations better understand their environments and how to safely operate within them.
“Analysts are thinking through what the concerns might be over the next 10 or 20 years for their firms,” Aldrich says. “These are often the jobs that require a broad perspective of short-term challenges.”
Responsibilities: Security analysts can monitor political developments, identify digital and cybersecurity threats, analyze public health concerns, and advise on the best ways to handle incoming threats. Through this research, they help other emergency management professionals understand the implications of current events and prepare effective responses in advance.
Education and Training: Earning a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management, computer science, and related fields can help you fast track your career as a security analyst. Analysts with expertise and training in cybersecurity are in particularly high demand.
“There have been a number of really critical cyber attacks with physical implications, and many of our systems are now online,” Aldrich says. “That’s why our graduates are thinking about cyber resiliency as part of their portfolio now.”
Establishing a Career in Emergency and Disaster Management
Emergency and disaster management jobs continue to grow thanks to more sophisticated cyberthreats, changing climate patterns, and more widespread concern with how individual companies and other organizations are responding to catastrophic events. Those with the experience and training to address these concerns will find a rewarding career that has a real impact on the lives of others.
Experience is critical when applying for emergency and disaster management jobs, according to Aldrich. Hiring managers want to see that applicants not only understand the principles and best practices of the field, but that they have a proven ability to implement them.
Hiring managers also want to see creativity in problem solving. “Oftentimes, these challenges are not one-time events,” Aldrich says. “Long-term thinking about how we build systems that can not only come back from this shock but be resilient to future ones is valuable.”
After accepting a new role, adaptability will become an important skill. Managers’ tasks and resources may change based on the situation at hand, and they may find themselves living in less than optimal conditions while they conduct their job as well if their role requires field support. Staying organized and clearly communicating with colleagues will help you manage rapidly changing situations as effectively as possible.
Earn an Advanced Degree
Northeastern’s master’s degree in security and resilience studies prepares students to not just respond to disasters and emergencies, but to help prepare for recurrences or mitigate effects in the future.
“This idea of resilience, of being able to bounce back from a shock, is not the most common,” Aldrich says. “We have a broader, holistic perspective on longer-term recovery and moving forward.”
By learning from faculty who are active participants and thought leaders in the industry, students stay abreast of trends, strategies, and technologies that will impact the future of preparedness and help them better support their communities.
Experience-based learning also helps students achieve this outlook. Co-op experiences allow students to work in the field for six months at a time, completing real work alongside seasoned professionals, while a capstone project gives them the opportunity to consult for local and national clients.
In Aldrich’s class on resilience in cities, research papers aren’t completed with library sources alone—students must conduct interviews with city officials, residents, and disaster managers in their area of study. Some students have gone as far as obtaining grants to visit Japan and India for their research.
“They learn to look at things from not just the elite perspective, or the expert perspective, but from all different approaches,” Aldrich says.