The Future of Emergency Management

By David Etkin, Niru Agrawal, Ken McBey, Manpreet Jaiswal, and Aaida Mamuji, York University

What will the profession of Emergency Management (EM) look like in the future? Certainly, we live in a world that is changing rapidly. Hazard, exposure, and vulnerability are all evolving, and the profession must evolve as well if it is to remain effective.

In many ways the field of EM is in its infancy. Emergency management as a profession and as an area of educational focus has exploded in numbers and importance over the past 20 years. In terms of the people who do EM, there has been a stark increase in college and university programs devoted to training and education over the past couple of decades, and employers are likely to continue to demand people with a formal education in this field.

What should the content of an EM educational program look like? This is a controversial question. While there is a basic knowledge set that is needed, emergency managers perform so many different roles in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, in such a variety of states and cultures, that it is extraordinarily difficult (and probably not possible) to design a “one size fits all” program that addresses issues throughout the phases of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Community colleges should continue to focus on the practical aspects of training for specific EM functions, while higher levels in universities should progressively broaden their programs to cover deep conceptual issues. Even with this differential focus, however, institutions will still be challenged in finding the “right” balance between the applied and the theoretical. While this is a conundrum, it is also an opportunity. We already see programs that focus on continuing education and distance learning, which are especially useful for professionals who do not live and work near educational institutions.

Overall, the important role that theory and educ​ation play in EM practice continues to be downplayed. Many practitioners (both who have and have not pursued formal education in EM) are quick to dismiss the fact that much of our practice is informed by theory from a multitude of disciplines. Part of this problem relates to the lack of availability of research articles for practitioners. Academics are poorly rewarded for publishing in non-refereed journals, and the language of journals is often not suitable for practitioners. This is both a challenge and an opportunity, as one can work towards the enhancement of crossover literature between practitioners and academics. More outreach by academics to practitioners is important, perhaps through the creation of short courses and workshops at ongoing education centers. This is especially challenging given that so many emergency managers are fire chiefs who do EM as an “add-on”.

It seems likely that emergency managers will continue to work towards professionalizing the field. This will require the identification and validation of a set of core competencies, a formal Code of Ethics for emergency managers, and a professional body that will self-regulate. It will further require formal collaboration partnerships between academia, the government, the private sector, and community partners. There has been progress in this area, but much more needs to be done.

As the world continues to globalize and as new threats emerge, the problems emergency managers need to address will lie increasingly outside of their sphere of influence. The importance of partnerships and collaborations will increase, but likewise content taught in EM programs may have to widen and potentially include political economy courses; conflict resolution theory and simulations; increased emphasis on macro and micro-level communication competencies; education as it relates to differences in ethnic/cultural and religious factors affecting EM operations; and awareness of key differences in EM systems/procedures operating in various countries, which is likely to require co-op/foreign training postings during the educational process.

As a profession, emergency management has tended to treat symptoms more than root causes – how can it be otherwise when the root causes are embedded broadly within society and lie far beyond the scope of the mandate of EM organizations?

Addressing this mindset is an opportunity. Emergency managers are increasingly recognizing issues of social vulnerability and are required to manage social disasters. Far too many “lessons learned” are “lessons we should have learned from previous disasters but didn’t.” Emergency managers should be at the forefront of pushing society beyond the status quo. While we may never be very successful in dispelling the disaster myths propagated by the media and movies, we can certainly work in that direction.

In many ways, the challenge for emergency managers is to build personal and organizational cultures that are trusted, and have the ability to influence policies and behaviors in stakeholder organizations and the public. That is our challenge, and our opportunity.


Lead author: David Etkin is a Professor of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University. Previously, he worked for Environment Canada from 1977-2005 as a weather forecaster, meteorology teacher, and researcher in the arctic and industrial climatology divisions of the Canadian Climate Centre. He has contributed to several national and international natural hazard projects, including the 2nd U.S. national assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was Principal Investigator of the Canadian National Assessment of Natural Hazards and is Past President of the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network. He has over 80 publications to his credit, including one textbook on disaster theory.