How to Become an Emergency Management Professional

Ken Curtin is a volunteer agency liaison with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). He has worked in the emergency management and human services field for 40 years, including positions at the American Red Cross, Christian Children’s Fund, and the International Rescue Committee. 

He is experienced in providing food, clothing, shelter, mass fatality services, temporary housing, and home repair. He has worked in voluntary agency coordination, refugee camp pharmacy operations, refugee primary health care, refugee camp vaccination programs, voluntary agency preparedness, coordination and coalition building, and disaster case management. Ken’s background also includes food distribution, supplementary feeding, intensive feeding, post-earthquake disability center construction, vocational training, resettlement, reunification, and psycho-social recovery. He has provided these services in many states and in 30 different foreign countries.

What is emergency management?

I have a book that says, “Emergency Management is the discipline and profession of applying science, technology, planning and management to deal with extreme events that can injure or kill large numbers of people, do extensive damage to property, and disrupt community life.”

Why did you decide to go into the emergency management field?

I needed a job to pay the rent.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

I’d say the biggest one is right in the name, “emergency.” People think of disasters as the telegenic emergency part — lights, sirens, rescues. In fact it’s less than 5 percent. Recovery takes years and involve a far more complex and difficult array of solutions and technique than the emergency.

What is a typical day like for you?

I spend 50 percent of the year in the office, 50 percent away at a major disaster, or training, or conference. I just returned from a nine-month flood assignment. One year is substantially different from the next.

I maintain communications with other organizations about info that will strengthen their ability to work together to help people affected by disasters. This includes emails, webinars, trainings, meetings, field briefings, organizing. Coalition building. I work 40 hours in peacetime, and 80 hours at the beginnings of operations.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

The people I work with from other organizations.

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

I can’t think of any.

Is there anything you would have done differently when you first started out in this field?

I have had to learn to manage my bosses more effectively.

What classes did you take in college that are the most relevant to your job?

None, but vacation volunteering was important.

What personality traits do you think would help someone to be successful in the emergency management field?

I think there’s a place for all kinds of personalities, depending on which aspect of the work one is doing.

What personality traits do you think might hinder someone’s success in the emergency management field?

Well, a preference for predictability and a distaste for pressure or sudden change, wouldn’t be a very good fit for field response, but there are long-term recovery and mitigation efforts that are done without drama or urgency.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to enter the emergency management field?

I would strongly suggest that an undergrad or graduate student who is interested in emergency management get a degree in a well established, respectable discipline like public health, law, engineering, etc, and NOT in the still-primitive discipline of emergency management. Emergency management degrees have very little relevance to hiring in the field.