How to Become an Emergency Management Specialist

Emergency management is a fast-paced, diverse career path with opportunities in the public and private sectors. Unlike some other careers, there is not just one path to becoming an emergency management specialist, rather, there are multiple ways to enter and excel in this field. No matter how you get there, emergency management specialists in public health help organizations prepare response plans to natural disasters and other sudden events. An emergency management director may coordinate the activities of specialists within an organization. Given the range of opportunities in this career, you can blaze your own trail while meeting some of the emergency management specialist requirements that we discuss in this article.

What Does an Emergency Management Specialist Do?

The key components of an emergency management specialist job description involve the preparation for and response to emergencies. Specialists develop plans and procedures for responding to natural disasters and other emergencies and help lead the response during and after the emergency. Emergency management specialists may work with government agencies, nonprofits and corporations to anticipate potential hazards, risks and public health threats and develop plans to respond.

Some key job duties for an emergency management specialist include:

  • Assess potential hazards and risks and prepare plans to respond to minimize human injuries and property damage.
  • Coordinate with key stakeholders to develop and communicate plans.
  • Organize training for staff, volunteers and other parties.
  • Develop relationships with local agencies and organizations to coordinate planning and response.
  • Maintain equipment and facilities used in emergency response.
  • Investigate and analyze any injuries or damage following a crisis,  public health emergency or disaster.

Important Skills for Emergency Management Specialists

Emergency management requires a blend of technical, managerial and communication skills to manage disaster preparedness and response and communicate with stakeholder and support organizations. 

Technical skills

  • Manage and use databases for weather, federal emergency management resources and geographic information systems to monitor potential threats to the organization’s sites and operations.
  • Use presentation and spreadsheet software to present information to stakeholders and manage internal databases to support response planning and implementation.

Managerial skills

  • Use inductive and deductive reasoning to apply general rules to unforeseen situations and apply rules to specific problems to develop effective response plans during emergency response to unexpected events. 
  • Employ critical thinking to prioritize actions when there is an emergency in the field and anticipate hazards to ensure an effective response.

Communication skills

  • Communicate with internal stakeholders to assess hazards, prepare response plans and organize emergency response training.
  • Interact with external organizations to coordinate emergency response plans and disseminate critical information to relevant parties.

What Is an Emergency Management Director?

Are you wondering, what does an emergency management director do that’s different from an emergency management specialist? There aren’t widely recognized criteria. Typically, an emergency management director leads an organization or department, coordinating the activities of emergency management specialists. Depending on the size and scope of the organization, the emergency management director may be a department of one.

Emergency management directors often hold at least a bachelor’s degree and have many years of relevant work experience to prepare them to lead emergency response and disaster planning.

Many emergency management directors work for local or state governments or other public sector organizations like hospitals, colleges and universities. They are often the public face of the organization in an emergency. In addition to coordinating emergency preparedness and response, they may also have to interact with media organizations covering the event, and public groups that may be adversely impacted. 

In private companies, emergency management directors build relationships with emergency agencies such as police and fire departments, state and federal emergency management agencies and vendors who may be called in to aid response efforts.

Steps to Become an Emergency Management Specialist

Emergency management specialist requirements may vary by the organization—governmental agencies may have different requirements than private sector organizations, for example. While there is no single career path, there are some generally accepted requirements that will help you secure a position as an emergency management specialist.

Step 1. Earn an Accredited Bachelor’s Degree 

The first step in meeting the emergency management specialist education requirements is earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. The degree may be in a related discipline such as business management, emergency management or public health. An IT-related degree such as computer science or information systems administration may be relevant for those working in business continuity roles. 

Because emergency management involves an array of knowledge, skills and abilities, an undergraduate degree that allows a range of learning opportunities may be a good foundation. For example, a mix of business courses, communication studies and science or health classes could prepare you for a variety of roles. 

Step 2. Gain Work Experience in Emergency Management

Careers in emergency management are usually built on experience in an industry or organization. Career experience in the military, law enforcement, fire safety or another emergency management organization may be helpful, as it teaches how to make quick but accurate decisions in stressful situations and coordinate with response agencies and stakeholders to manage the situation. 

As an emergency management specialist, you will need to understand the risks and vulnerabilities in an organization, develop emergency response plans and marshal the necessary resources to implement the plan. It can take years to build the necessary breadth and depth of knowledge to serve in the role.

Step 3. Consider Earning Emergency Management Certifications 

Certifications may be required to work in an emergency management position in an organization, particularly in governmental agencies. As some certifications need to be renewed periodically, you may be required to obtain continuing education credits to maintain the certification. 

Emergency management certifications include:

Associate emergency manager (AEM): Offered by the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), the AEM is designed for those with training but not practical experience entering the field.

Certified emergency manager (CEM): The IAEM also offers the CEM for those with at least three years of emergency management experience and participation in drills or actual events. 

Associate business continuity professional (ABCP): For entry-level positions to support professionals as they gain experience. Offered by the Disaster Recovery Institute International (DRI).

Certified functional continuity professional (CFCP): Offered by DRI for those with a narrow scope of responsibility, such as IT recovery.

Certified business continuity professional (CBCP): Offered by DRI for professionals with at least two years of experience and demonstrated knowledge of professional practices.

Step 4. Consider an Advanced Degree

An advanced degree may help further your emergency management career, but a bachelor’s is an excellent way to start.

A recent O*Net Online survey found this breakdown of education level among emergency management director positions:

  • 52% bachelor’s degree
  • 20% master’s degree
  • 16% associate degree

One possible emergency management specialist education requirement may include obtaining a master’s in public health, depending on your career goals. Also, online MPH programs are available that allow working professionals to advance their education and achieve their career goals.

A master’s in public health may be a good fit for anyone working in the public sector and those in private sector positions in healthcare organizations. Public health encompasses disease prevention, monitoring health conditions and implementing policies to protect specific populations or regional or national communities.

Advanced degrees in related fields or specialty fields like information technology or cybersecurity are also options for building a fulfilling career.

Step 5. Work as Emergency Management Specialist

Regardless of your degree, the emergency management career path may include significant experience in the field. 

As an emergency management specialist, you may be responsible for coordinating, supervising, managing and training others. You may spend time researching best practices from similar organizations and emergency management agencies to prepare plans and procedures that meet local, state and federal regulations. You’ll learn how to analyze the resources, equipment and staff available to respond to emergencies and coordinate with local emergency responders and state and local agencies. 

Communicating those plans to individuals and groups is a vital step, as is managing the response during emergencies. You may be involved in managing an incident response command and coordinating evacuations and rescue missions.

Career Outlook and Salary Expectations

Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, careers in emergency management are among the highest-paying jobs in public health. In 2020, the median annual wage for emergency management directors was $76,250, with a national range from $66,730 in state government to $106,570 for professional and scientific services positions.

The mean annual salary can vary widely by location and industry. The following are annual mean wages in 2020 for emergency management directors in different areas, according to the BLS.  

  • $141,820: San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
  • $110,030: New York-Jersey City-NY, NJ, PA
  • $52,090: Southeast Oklahoma nonmetropolitan area

These are some of the top-paying industries for emergency management directors in mean annual wages:

  • $162,930: Federal executive branch
  • $128,500: Architectural and engineering services
  • $123,460: Oil and gas extraction

Work Settings for Emergency Management Specialists

Emergency management specialists work in a variety of settings and organizations. The most common employer other than schools and hospitals or healthcare facilities is local government agencies. State governments are also major employers. Opportunities can also be found in educational institutions, public and private. Private companies such as railroads, oil and natural gas production and distribution, mining companies and other organizations whose operations have an element of risk may also employ emergency response specialists.

Most emergency management positions are full time and may also require on-call duty on evenings, weekends and holidays. In the event of an emergency, the specialist may be required to work overtime or travel on very short notice. For emergency management specialists, the jobs are often a mix of office work and field experience as well as meeting with partner and stakeholder organizations.

FAQs about Careers in Emergency Management

A career in emergency management blends technical skills with real-world experience and community building to prepare and respond to adverse situations. We’ll look at a few common questions you may have about this challenging career path.

How can I become an emergency management director?

Emergency management directors often hold at least a bachelor’s degree and have many years of relevant work experience to prepare them to lead disaster planning and emergency response for an organization. Professional certifications may also help prepare you for this career. Some emergency management directors specialize in specific areas such as information technology.

What degree should I get to become an emergency management specialist?

About half of emergency management specialists hold a bachelor’s degree in related fields such as public health, business management or emergency management. A master’s degree in public health can prepare specialists to assume a director role in a healthcare-oriented organization. Specialized degrees such as information technology management could prepare students for functionally focused emergency response.

What is a typical emergency management career path?

The typical emergency management career path starts with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Then work experience is usually the next step. After that, a master’s degree can position you for additional responsibility within an organization. Professional certification and continuing education may contribute to a successful career.

Is emergency management a good career?

Emergency management is a career with average job growth expectations and salary ranges and is available in any state in the country. It includes a blend of technical and managerial skills, so it could be attractive to those who like some autonomy but also are comfortable building and working with teams in stressful situations.

This page includes information from O*NET OnLine by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration (USDOL/ETA). Used under the CC BY 4.0 license. O*NET® is a trademark of USDOL/ETA. 

Last updated in November 2021