By Darrell G. Ray Jr., CEM
Class of 2015, Executive Master's in Emergency & Disaster Management

When I am asked the perennial question, “What do you do?” the last ten years of my life swirl through my mind in a panicked rush, until I stammer out, “Oh—I’m an emergency manager.”

Then, disappointedly, I realize that I have not even approached answering the question in full.

The day-to-day work of an emergency manager can be difficult, or sometimes impossible, to explain to people uninitiated with the eccentricities of this growing field. Perhaps that difficulty could be alleviated by introducing a new way to look at how emergency management can be taught and practiced.

The field of emergency management could use a little refinement. Specialization could help clarify the roles and responsibilities within the career field, ensuring that individual efforts would be able to focus on narrow issues that would ultimately culminate in the advancement of the emergency management industry.

It is well accepted that, as a discipline, emergency management is a wide-ranging and broad subject area. In fact, some argue that emergency management is continuing to grow and broaden, further exacerbating the issue of bringing clarity to this burgeoning field. Emergency management is not the first and only discipline to find itself in this muddled predicament. In fact, there are many occupational fields that are naturally and progressively wide-ranging and that are still relatable to the general public because they have undergone specialization.

Using Engineering as a Model for Specialization

The field of engineering covers a wide range of areas, from biomedical innovations and nuclear physics to computer science and space travel—it doesn’t get much broader than that. But engineers do not suffer from the same lack of clarity suffered by present-day emergency managers when they relate their purpose, precisely because engineers specialize in a sub-field that further elaborates on their special niche. Therefore, specialization was necessary not only because the field of engineering was expanding, but also because specialization has an added benefit of forcing practitioners and academics to focus on a particular sub-field. The result is a greater degree of understanding in each sub-field that, when taken cumulatively, advances the engineering field as a whole.

Furthermore, it is not just the specialized position an engineer holds that highlights his specialty; it is also his academic background that qualifies him for such a position, which ultimately sets him apart from other types of engineers. This concept means that practitioners need the ability to state what they are not and what they will not do, just as much as they need the ability to state what they are and what they will do.

The earliest divisions, or specializations, to emerge within the field of engineering (civil, mechanical, electrical, and chemical) demonstrate the inherent need to address the subject along functional lines.

Dividing Specializations Along Functional Lines

If we applied the same concept of dividing the umbrella discipline along functional lines to emergency management then you could imagine a need for academics and practitioners to chiefly focus on topics like: emergency planning, crisis communications, incident management, mitigation management, recovery management, and emergency logistics. Albeit, the emergency management process frequently calls for practitioners to perform in an inter-system environment that would arguably suffer from a field full of specialists; therefore, it seems rational to assume that there is plenty of room for a mixture of generalists and specialists.

The road to specialization may be uncomfortable, and it may take decades or generations to complete, but it is a well-traversed road. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, and many other disciplines went through the arduous process of specialization and came out the other side more proficient, knowledgeable, and better positioned to move our civilization forward.

As coda, I will leave you with this thought: If the sociological work related to specialization established over the last 80 years is to be believed then emergency management leaders—practical and academic—need to accept that specialization may be inevitable and that this industry must become further defined and specialized or suffer from a nebulous, irrelevant existence.

— Darrell G. Ray Jr., CEM, is an emergency management professional and a 2015 graduate of the Georgetown Emergency & Disaster Management executive master’s program. As an Emergency Management Specialist with the Santa Clara County Fire Department, Darrell is currently assigned to the County’s Office of Emergency Services and serves as the Lead Emergency Management Planner for the Santa Clara County Operational Area.