The Future of Disaster Preparedness: How Big Events Create Big Job Opportunities

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Security

Dan Murphy, adjunct professor for Northeastern’s Homeland Security and Strategic Intelligence programs, shares his take on the future of disaster preparedness and how aspiring homeland security professionals can prepare.  


I teach Homeland Security and Emergency Management to undergraduates and graduate students at two colleges. Each semester, students ask me questions such as:

  • Which agencies are hiring?
  • Should I apply for state police or my local police department?
  • Is TSA my only entry point to a homeland security career?
  • How do I get a job in the intelligence community if I don’t have a security clearance?

And, one of my favorites…“I live in Quincy. I went to school in Quincy. My family lives in Quincy. I like to drink beers in my buddy Sully’s basement on Friday nights in Quincy. I don’t want to leave Quincy. Do you think FEMA or MEMA will be hiring for positions near Quincy?”

There is nothing wrong with these questions, per se. I love “Sully,” and I have friends like Sully. And, I actually do live in Quincy, MA. However, I would challenge undergraduate- and graduate-level students in homeland security, intelligence, and emergency management programs (at Northeastern and other colleges), to step back and think about changes happening in the world and the opportunities that are being created by those changes on a larger scale.

Consider the Changes Happening on a Large Scale

If you want to work for FEMA or MEMA in or near your home town, that’s fine. Watch for those jobs to pop up on www.usajobs.gov, and start applying. If you apply rigorously and persistently, especially at the lower GS levels, you will likely eventually be successful. And, if you are passionate about being a police officer in your hometown, that’s fine, too. Just keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need an advanced degree in homeland security or intelligence to do so.

Northeastern University’s graduate-level homeland security and strategic intelligence programs are what I like to call “wide lens” programs. While these programs grew from a criminal justice heritage—and while the homeland security program has a name that happens to match a U.S. government department name—our scope of studies is significantly larger than the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I ask my students to try (in their minds) to decapitalize the “H” and the “S” of “Homeland Security,” because I believe that the growing share of employment opportunities for our graduates will continue to be outside DHS, and even outside the United States. I believe that is a tremendously exciting thing.


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Imagining Our Future

Imagine if you could travel back in time to the years prior to the 9/11 attack and Hurricane Katrina. If you had been asked to predict the future of disaster management and homeland security (a term that was only starting to be used in certain circles), would you have ever imagined that our law enforcement and response agencies would have been reshuffled in such significant ways to create an entirely new cabinet-level department? Could you have predicted that our first responders would begin to normalize their communications protocols and frequencies or that the Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS) would become standard practice at the federal, state and municipal levels? Could you have imagined that our intelligence community would begin to integrate and collaborate under a single office and director? Would you have predicted that you would open a newspaper or magazine, and see a bunch of blue jackets with yellow letters —FBI, ATF, DHS, and ICE—all in the same photograph, working collaboratively in a tactical setting?

Probably not. But big events cause big changes.

So…What big things will happen next, and what will be the ripple effect for practitioners engaged in disaster preparedness, homeland security, and emergency management in general?

Emerging Trends in Disaster Preparedness 

In recent weeks, I donned my reporter hat and posed that question to some of my more future-minded colleagues. Here are some emerging trends they mentioned.

1) Exponential Application of the Whole Community Concept

It didn’t sound like a big deal when it was first emphasized in the Obama administration, but the idea of “whole community” will be the most significant long-term philosophical shift in emergency management history. Yes, 9/11 caused a shift, and Katrina caused another shift—shifts in mission focus.

“Whole community,” however, is not just a couple of inclusive words; It is an entire shift in philosophy. Look across every large city in the U.S. today, and you’ll see multitudes of new initiatives, programs, and organizations focused on whole community resilience efforts. While the numbers are hard to quantify (because they come from a multitude of appropriations), one could draft a list of $10 million of such initiatives in the metropolitan Boston area alone. A future Katrina-like event in a large U.S. municipal area will only energize such efforts exponentially.

Key Takeaway for Practitioners:  Do look for jobs in agencies, but look more for jobs in programs and initiatives in the large metropolitan areas. That’s where the growth opportunities will be. Ask an actuary, and they’ll tell you: in the near future, a major U.S. city will inevitably and unfortunately be affected by a significant earthquake (San Francisco), hurricane (Miami), or tsunami (Honolulu). When that happens, watch for significant long-term recovery and mitigation allocations (and jobs) to flow to newly established programs, task forces, and initiatives in the affected areas.

2) Emphasis on Disadvantaged Populations

The whole community philosophy will be energized by new millennial generations of Americans who are passionate about social justice and who see disasters as opportunities to lift disadvantaged populations out of poverty. No matter your political leaning, when the next hurricane hits Puerto Rico or the U.S Virgin Islands, Washington’s response will be different than it was in 2017 after Hurricane Maria. The disaster will be more quickly and more widely televised via emergent and emerging social media, especially crowdsourcing technologies. As broadband cellular technologies reach the underdeveloped regions of the world, such disasters will be broadcast in significantly greater living color. The public outcry from millennials, Hollywood, and eventually mainstream America, will crescendo. Funding will likely be quick and significant.

Key Takeaway for Practitioners: Watch for more FEMA jobs to pop up on USAJobs.gov. However, as explained above, also watch for newly established programs, task forces, and initiatives in disadvantaged communities. While those programs will likely hire a percentage of humanities majors, they will also need people educated and experienced in homeland security, disaster preparedness, and emergency management-related matters. Watch for such programs and initiatives to be rapidly funded and stood up in the weeks and months following emergencies and disasters—especially when those events impact disadvantaged segments of societies—as this funding pattern is already becoming a norm.

3) The Convergence of Disaster Preparedness and Urban Planning

For more than a century, the Army Corps of Engineers has been learning and refining earthquake and hurricane-resistant construction techniques. The same dynamics described above–millennial generations passionate about social justice and disasters being amplified by social media—will energize and accelerate the philosophy of “building back better” in communities affected by disaster. Urban planners are already spending a greater percentage of mindshare on risk-based planning, especially with regard to disadvantaged populations.

Key Takeaway for Practitioners: Urban planning agencies, initiatives, and companies will increasingly employ mixes of expertise and skill sets, including engineers, social scientists, public administrators, and emergency managers. For homeland security and emergency management majors, this shift will offer fascinating and rewarding opportunities, both within the U.S. and abroad.

4) The Convergence of Disaster Preparedness and Public Health

These industries are also converging. Public health agencies, initiatives, and organizations will increasingly need to employ a mix of expertise and skill sets, including clinicians, social scientists, public administrators, and emergency managers. The large influx of migrant populations into the U.S. from developing countries brings a multitude of public health challenges. In the wake of natural disasters, those public health challenges will only multiply. As discussed above, new generations will also have greater visibility and greater sensitivities for public health crises.

Key Takeaway for Practitioners: Again, a good percentage of the opportunities here will be in large metropolitan areas with disadvantaged populations. Find which public health organizations are hiring clinicians. They will also continue to hire non-clinicians. Several of my emergency management students have recently found exciting opportunities in the public health industry.

5) The Convergence of Humanitarian Assistance (HA) and Disaster Relief (DR)

The U.S. government and military services have already converged these two disciplines, as has the United Nations. We now think of HA/DR less as two separate things and more as a continuum of conditions. In recent decades, the U.S. Agency of International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have begun to understand that at-risk populations in failed and partially-failed states are more likely to suffer greater consequences from disasters, both natural and man-made. There are at least five countries in the world that are one storm away from sudden and chaotic mass migration that could have ripple effects across entire regions.

Key Takeaway for Practitioners: USAID, the UN, and NGOs have realized that they need to hire not only PhDs who are skilled at researching best practices, but practitioners who are good at executing plans at the operational and tactical levels. OFDA and OCHA are in growth mode, becoming involved in a greater number of crises and disasters each year. If you are interested in doing emergency management or disaster response abroad, watch for opportunities with those specific organizations and the organizations (both in the government and private sector) that support them.

6) Climate Change

Putting aside for a moment any political leanings on climate change, the fact is that a large percentage of the Western world believes climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and that the U.S. must take the lead in climate-based disaster mitigation. There are likely to be major opportunities for homeland security professionals in this area.

As rising sea levels become (or are perceived to become) a more imminent threat, and as communities such as lower Manhattan and Miami are perceived to be at greater risk, watch for Washington to embark on initiatives similar to the dikes, dams, and levees of the Netherlands or like Italy’s MOSE project, which is helping to protect Naples from seasonal flooding.

Key Takeaway for Practitioners: Here too, agencies and their private sector partners will employ a mix of expertise and skill sets, including engineers, sociologists, psychologists, public administrators, and emergency managers—especially in the conceptual design phases of these initiatives. If you are passionate about saving South Beach or the East Village from global warming, the next big hurricane may create a sense of urgency. A Miami “MOSE” (which would actually be much easier to build than the Neapolitan MOSE) might be just one storm away.

Final Thoughts

I believe the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding jobs in the world reside in spaces where industries and professions converge and create new opportunities. To understand where those convergences lie, and where they will emerge in the future, one must be a student of the world. And, to be a good student of the world, one must be a multi-disciplinarian.

I believe our homeland security and strategic intelligence graduate programs are both very effective at widening a student’s lens on the world. To take the greatest advantage of both these programs, students should step back, think big thoughts, understand what is happening in the U.S. and across the world politically and economically, ponder the “what ifs”, and consider at least spending a few of your early professional years in different geographies. Go big. Go bold. Go work in Singapore for a year! And if you find that you just don’t like Singapore, you can always come back to the comfort of Sully’s basement.

To learn more about advancing your career in disaster preparedness and homeland security, download our comprehensive guide below. 


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