Emergencies can happen at any time, and they rarely deliver a warning call. The COVID-19 pandemic provides just one dramatic example of how surprising and devastating unforeseen emergencies can be.
Ever-increasing international travel and commerce mean that no incident is ever truly local. Our interconnectedness ensures that a contagion or tsunami halfway around the world will produce ripple effects worldwide, disrupting trade, travel, and lives. It has never been more critical for governments and businesses to have plans and procedures to manage crises and protect vulnerable communities.
News reports on emergency response may focus on the heroic efforts of first responders, neglecting the equally important work taking place behind the scenes. Emergency management managers prepare for and oversee responses to all types of disasters. Their work requires extensive planning based on rigorous training. They are critical to the success of any emergency response.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, shone a spotlight on emergency management, leading to a significant escalation and reconfiguration of its responsibilities. Today’s public demands robust emergency management systems ready to respond to—or better still, prevent—the next natural or man-made tragedy.
Universities have responded by developing graduate level emergency management programs, often in conjunction with a master’s degree in homeland security. Do you need a master’s degree to build a career in emergency management? We explore that question by addressing who gets a master’s degree in emergency management (and why?), discussing:
Hurricanes, tropical storms, earthquakes, tornadoes, blizzards, mudslides, floods—the list goes on, an endless parade of natural crises besetting the United States with surprising frequency. If you’re curious about where they are and how frequently they occur, visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website. It devotes a section to tracking current calamities by location.
And it’s not just natural disasters. Human activity adds to the chaos in the form of chemical spills, industrial explosions, public transportation accidents, and terrorist attacks. When these cataclysms collide with fragile environments, infrastructures, and populations, the damage can be devastating.
Emergency and disaster management professionals are trained to protect and support vulnerable communities when disaster strikes. According to FEMA.gov, emergency management “can be defined as an effort to plan how to deal with disasters in the most effective manner.”
Ultimately, emergency management is categorized into four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
This phase refers to minimizing risk by reducing the cause, occurrence, impact, and any loss that could be a consequence of a disaster.
Examples of hazard mitigation include:
Disaster preparedness is the process of anticipating and mitigating an imminent threat. Robust preparedness provides communities the confidence that they will know what to do when a disaster occurs.
Examples of disaster preparedness include:
Emergency response includes the necessary steps in the immediate aftermath of a disaster to ensure that communities are safe and properties spared. Public safety measures are established to support communities’ displacement and protect the well-being of those affected.
Examples of emergency response include:
During the recovery phase, efforts are focused on restoring communities to their pre-disaster, or even better, improved conditions. This phase is usually the longest, especially if the disaster created extensive damage.
Examples of emergency recovery include:
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An emergency management master’s degree prepares you for a career supporting the public during disasters. Earning an emergency management degree will provide you the skills and knowledge to build and implement systems to keep communities safe through turbulent times. You’ll also be prepared to implement preventative measures to fend off, or at least mitigate, approaching catastrophes.
Curricula for this degree program vary by school. Even the degree names vary. Some universities offer a Master of Arts in Emergency Management; others, a Master of Science in Emergency Management. Depending on your career objectives, you could pursue a specialization through electives to develop niche skills or choose a generalist, interdisciplinary approach.
Many students in these programs already have some professional experience in emergency management. In fact, some schools require it, although you can also find programs that accept students with little or no work experience in the field.
The curriculum for the Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program at Virginia Commonwealth University offers an example of what you might expect from a typical program. Its courses include:
Homeland security and emergency management programs are not your only options leading to careers in emergency preparedness. The field requires experts in many disciplines. For example, if you have a computer science background, you might consider pursuing a Master of Science in Cyber Security, such as the one offered online by Tulane University. Its curriculum includes:
Homeland security and emergency management programs are available in on-campus and online programs, on part-time and full-time calendars. Regardless of your circumstances, you should be able to find a program that fits your interests and your schedule. FEMA’s website includes a list of emergency management masters programs throughout the United States.
Most programs require the following of applicants:
Most masters in emergency management programs typically require 36 to 45 credit hours and take about two years to complete for full-time graduate students.
However, there are graduate programs that offer part-time options. Part-time enrollment allows for more flexibility in the amount of coursework, but of course, taking fewer classes at a time would extend the time frame of completion. Part-time students typically complete these programs in three to four years.
When budgeting for these programs, expect tuition rates to be between $20,000 to $30,000 a year. According to U.S. News and World Report , the per-credit cost of online masters of emergency management programs ranges from $270 to $630. Keep in mind that some schools also charge online technology fees and a higher tuition rate for out-of-state learners. You may qualify for financial assistance. Ask your employer about work-sponsored tuition programs.
A master’s degree in emergency management should qualify you for high-level roles that engage in decision-making, disaster preparedness, hazard mitigation, and disaster response. Positions can pay from $74,000 to $140,000.
Emergency management professionals often work in the public sector with government agencies like FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security. Roles also exist in the private sector and with nonprofits.
You may find work as an emergency manager. Emergency managers are responsible for assisting communities and organizations in anticipating hazards and vulnerability and employing measures to best deal with disasters.
Within the “emergency manager” title, you’ll find specialized roles, such as emergency management specialist. They possess particular knowledge within the many security and emergency management fields, including hazard mitigation, emergency preparedness, disaster response, biosecurity, and homeland security.
Other roles you might find yourself in include:
Who gets a master’s in emergency management?
Emergency management programs do not require a specific undergraduate field of study. Many come from one of the following backgrounds:
Emergency management professionals also have varied professional experiences. Most come from public service backgrounds. More importantly, they come from professions that favor those who are calm, deliberate, and methodical. These professions include:
Because many students enter master’s programs with both a bachelor’s and some work experience, the majority in these programs range in age from the mid-20s to mid-30s. The field is currently predominantly male, with men holding approximately 60 percent of jobs in the field.
If you merely want to be involved in emergency response and don’t care at which level you enter, you may not need a master’s degree. The field has plenty of opportunities at all levels for individuals with various academic qualifications.
If, however, you aspire to a leadership position, a master’s degree can help get you there faster. Yes, you may be able to rise through the ranks, from volunteer firefighter to community emergency manager and then beyond. It will be a long, tough slog for most, though, and at some point, you will probably realize you need additional training and credentials. That may come in the form of certifications, or it may mean a master’s degree. For many, it’s both.
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