Ashley Morris (Baltimore County Homeland Security and Emergency Management)
Emergency Management as a Career
As part of our campaign for National Preparedness Month 2021, we engaged subject-matter experts in the field of emergency management to have them weigh in on a few key areas. Our goal is to support increased visibility of EM as a profession (#MakeEMMoreVisible), not only for those who may be studying it at UIC, but also for those who may be considering entering the field.
Tell us about yourself: Ashley Morris, Emergency Management Planner for Baltimore County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. I’ve been doing local city/county level EM for over four years. My positions have been diverse, typically covering tasks in all aspects of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. I have a meteorological background from college, so I also conduct weather briefings and coordinate with NWS during weather activations. Lastly, I have a BS in Geoscience/Geophysics and a MS in Natural Hazards Geography from Texas Tech University.
What do you consider essential skillsets for EM? Strong project management skills, organization, writing, and leadership skills. Experience or knowledge in STEM in disasters, weather, natural disasters, or manmade disasters gives a strong advantage in planning, communicating, and responding to typical hazards we face. Data-driven skills in GIS, modeling, and research is also helpful as we push to start including more technology (flood models) for better decisions. Lastly, having knowledge or experience in first response is a definite perk. Ems are not first responders, but we serve our response partners the most and it is a good idea to understand basic response needs and resource needs to have a better idea of capabilities and planning while interacting with these partners.
Can you recommend suggested training / credentials? FEMA Basic Academy (Planning, Alert/Warning, HSEEP, Foundations, etc), emergency planning courses, public information courses, weather courses, social media courses, NDPTC courses, All-Hazards ICS position courses (the best to learn ICS positions thanks to exercises in them). State certifications through EM associations, CEM/AEM through IAEM.
What do we do? Why do we do it? Why is it important? We help our communities get ready for emergencies, get through emergencies, rebuild after emergencies, and prevent major impacts from future emergencies. I do it because I am passionate about saving lives and property from severe weather. Weather fatalities are preventable. The science of meteorology is good enough to know when we have impactful area in a region. While forecast improvement is possible, we should work hard to provide resources and create options to prevent deaths. It’s important because our jobs ensure people continue to live through and move on from life-altering situations. We spend billions on disasters each year. Our work plays a role in continuity of our government on all levels.
What makes your job unique and enjoyable? It is extremely rewarding to help people, even through the challenging times. The challenge of trying to perfect the concept of organizing chaos always brings new problems and challenges to work on. We have to think on our feet, be ready to continue to learn, adapt to changes, and also be passionate enough to keep moving forward.
What are your “go-to” publications in the field? There are a lot of great disaster publications and books. I enjoy disaster literature: The Big Ones, What Stands in a Storm, Managing Hurricane Katrina, etc. I also enjoy reading AARs I can find. We learn from other disasters when we don’t have an opportunity to respond to them constantly in our own backyard. I have got multiple ideas about my own improvements by watching/learning from other US disasters as they occur.
What do you consider the most valuable resource on your bookshelf? See above – but also #EMGTwitter. When I started, I did not know much about technical aspects of emergency management. I learned A TON from our colleagues on Twitter who not only shared their experiences but also opened up and had brainstorming discussions. We can also learn from one another to grow and improve.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in EM? Never undervalue the true need for strong partnerships in all realms of community. The cliches are right – don’t shake hands during disaster. It takes a village for an effective disaster response – every organization, business, group, and person plays a role. We will never have full capabilities to provide effective response with only government agencies and resources. We will always need to leverage partnerships with our community to ensure we are being inclusive and serving everyone.
How did you learn it? I learned it the most by starting new EM roles in the middle of a disaster (pandemic). I also learned it by being newer to a government and needing to coordinate storm response but realizing I didn’t have all the connections I needed. When starting, making intros and building a contact list is a great way to kickstart this and collect as many as possible.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had gotten when you were starting out? I wish I understood the connection of EM to first response better. I came out of college with no knowledge of public safety and I learned a lot from my previous agencies who were willing to give me a chance and teach me. I would have tried to get more experience while in college through EM tours, internships, or volunteering. I would have also tried to volunteer at a FD to have a better knowledge of FD needs. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to get into the field. It took me 60 applications to get an interview. Our field of EM has still not defined exactly what it takes to be an EM and what the skillsets and requirements should be. While this can be discouraging, I see it as an opportunity to be a part of something great! We can all work together to define what our field looks like in years to come. We better do it quickly – we have been extremely busy with disasters the past two years. Hope you are up for the challenge with us!
What should every new EM practitioner do / focus on / remember?
- Always aspire to learn more – stay on top of new EM training and lessons learned. Growth is movement, and standing still is “death.” Our field is moving so fast with so many challenges we need all EMs to be on top of their craft.
- Never plan in a silo: whole community is something we say but very little actually do it. We need to bring in community groups to help us write plans and not write plans in OEM offices without external input. Let our vulnerable populations help us better understand their needs.
- For women: follow your dreams! Never let being the only woman in the room scare you from doing emergency management and showing your talents to others. There are many women in EM roles and we are all here to support one another. As a woman in the field, I hope to help cultivate a field that is welcoming to all women who are passionate about making a difference through an EM career.
- Don’t be discouraged and always remember your WHY as an emergency manager. We are in a tough field. It is high stakes and high stress. As we work to take on some of the world’s biggest challenges and threats to life and property, we also face challenges in field definition, training access/requirements, and task load. One of the biggest challenges is trying to help when EM has little visibility to nearly everyone outside our field. Stay strong and don’t get jaded. We are making progress and I can’t wait to see where our field is in a few years.
If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what steps should they take? Consider skills in science, STEM, mapping, and data: meteorology, earth science, natural hazards, cybersecurity, GIS, communications, etc. A degree that teaches these skills would be helpful. Supplement any college work with real experience. Intern or volunteer with local OE office. Try to shadow EOC activations or deployments. Look at Red Cross or Team Rubicon for opportunities for field work. Volunteer or shadow first response organizations. Get involved in community preparedness. Consider other skills in HAM radio, communications, public health, infrastructure, etc. School is helpful but try to get the practitioner experience too to complete your understanding. Many of the challenges we face in this field are at the practitioner level – and you don’t see them until you are in the room.
What are some things that new EM practitioners can do that would be applicable across the EM spectrum? See above
What message would you like to convey to the EM community as a whole? I admire our field and the professionals within it. We are all here because we have a passion to help others. We are resilient and we are ready to take on any challenge thrown at us! We gotta keep moving forward and pushing for items of importance for our field. This includes EM professionalization, job/training standards, bridging academia/practitioner, accountability, EM visibility, and development of EM capabilities in government. It’s a lot – but I am confident we have the right people to do it!
To learn more about Ashley Morris, visit her LinkedIn profile. You can also view her blog, and follow her on Twitter.
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