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Clayton Oliver (Emergency Manager for Iowa State University)

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.

A little about Clayton Oliver: I'm Clayton Oliver, Emergency Manager for Iowa State University.  My first career was technical writing but I got tired of writing manuals no one read for software no one installed.  I got my first taste of EM in 2008, serving as an EOC volunteer for Lexington-Fayette County (KY) Emergency Management after taking their Community Emergency Response Team training.  I began my EM career with them in 2013, where I spent four years as their planner for the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, dealing with the U.S. Army's chemical weapons stockpile at Blue Grass Army Depot.  In 2017, I moved to the University of Kentucky, where I was an EM generalist for the campus police department.  I came to ISU in 2019 as the EM deputy and took over the program in 2020 after my predecessor retired.  I'm also a freelance author and designer in the tabletop roleplaying game industry, where I've accumulated about 1.1 million words of published work since 1996.

What do you consider essential skillsets for EM? Project management and program management for daily work.  Research and networking– we don't have to be subject matter experts in everything, but we need to know where to go to get reliable information quickly.  Technological literacy, at least to the point that we can understand what value different technologies bring to our EOCs and the responders we're supporting in the field.  We must be comfortable with making hasty decisions and recommendations on incomplete information – to mangle Patton, an acceptable IAP delivered now is better than a perfect IAP delivered during the recovery phase.  Verbal and written communication skills – there's a reason communication is an item in every honest AAR ever written.

Can you recommend suggested training / credentials? Do the minimum NIMS-compliance independent study courses as quickly as possible so you can check that box, but that's not even foundational – that's as elemental as respiration and circulation.  FEMA and IAEM are aligning their respective visions of foundational emergency management knowledge through the National Emergency Management Basic Academy.  I recommend that as a "must have upon hire or complete (subject to availability) within one year of hire" criterion for anyone trying to fill an entry-level emergency management position.  I don't think IAEM's CEM credential goes far enough to be a true professional gateway certification (and I say that as a CEM holder myself) but it is our current national benchmark, so spend the first few years of your career pursuing it.  Even if you choose not to certify, the work you'll do to meet the requirements will take you outside your comfort zone and job description somewhere and will make you a better EM.

What makes your job unique and enjoyable? The variety.  While there is some routine, I have a very wide range of potential tasks and projects.  The problems that come to me are often interesting (or at least "interesting") and unique.  I get to work with, and learn from, practitioners from many different disciplines, and I get to see the inner workings of a lot of large, complex processes.

What are your “go-to” publications in the field? Dr. Samantha Montano's blog and email newsletter, Claire Rubin's blog and  Tim Reicker's blog for slaying and barbecuing our sacred cows of training and planning.  The #EMGTwitter community on Twitter for awareness of current incidents and trends – and peer support.

What do you consider the most valuable resource on your bookshelf? I accumulate books.  Don't ask me to pick just one!  For the history of our discipline, Emergency Management: The American Experience (Claire Rubin).  For fast hardcopy reference even though I have digital versions, the US Coast Guard Incident Management Handbook and the DOT's Emergency Response Guidebook.  To remind me that we've been doing this for a while, ISU's 1962 nuclear war survival plan.  For talking to the public about mindset – more important than skills or gear – The Unthinkable (Amanda Ripley).  I'm halfway through Disasterology (Dr. Samantha Montano again) and it's a kick in the complacency regarding natural hazards and climate change.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had gotten when you were starting out? I got all the advice I needed.  I just didn't listen to it.

What should every new EM practitioner do / focus on / remember?

  • Networking and relationships are key in this job.  We can't do everything ourselves – really, we can't do much ourselves – so success relies on our partnerships.
  • Reputation is the key to successfully building and maintaining relationships and your network.  Public safety is a small community and your partners talk to one another.
  • Integrity and reliability are the keys to building a good reputation.

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what steps should they take? Start playing tabletop roleplaying games.  Learn how to ask questions that draw out relevant details of a situation, how to improvise under pressure, how to make decisions swiftly under stress with incomplete information, and how to structure an interactive narrative experience (e.g., an exercise).  Go to school for a technical degree, fail Calculus II, switch to a communication degree.  Learn how to structure communication appropriate to different audiences.  Find mentors who see more in you than you see in yourself.  Become wholly dissatisfied with a job that isn't a calling. Volunteer with your local emergency management agency.  Stick around because they feed you.  Watch what they do and get inspired.  Go back to school for an EM degree because you don't want to spent twenty years as a firefighter before getting into EM.  Get hired, learn, change jobs, learn more.  You can probably skip a few steps in there...

What are some things that new EM practitioners can do that would be applicable across the EM spectrum? Don't hyperspecialize.  Even if your first job is narrowly-focused, find way to get experience outside your lane.  Useless trivia or a chance exchange of business cards can pay off years later.  Stick around when the folks close to retirement are telling war stories – as a discipline, we do a lousy job of formalizing and sharing lessons learned, so oral folklore is both teaching and social bonding experience.  Find out early on if you have the aptitude for functioning under stress or if your temperament is better suited to other roles, because your first disaster in a leadership role is not the time for your team to learn your adverse stress reactions.

What message would you like to convey to the EM community as a whole? As is the case in many regulated professions – aviation, engineering, medicine – the lessons of our failures are written in blood, which is rarely our own.  Our constituents may not know who we are, but they can't afford for us to be unequal to the next disaster's challenges.  We need to drive our own evolution from a vaguely-defined pursuit into a mature profession before outside forces dictate that evolution to us.  This means embracing higher and more rigorous standards, finding the right balance between academic knowledge and first responder field experience, aggressively pursuing our own professional development, challenging our peers and leaders to join us in that journey, and mentoring our employees and students to ensure the next generation of EM practitioners is more capable than we are.

To learn more about Clayton Oliver, visit his blog. You can also follow him on Twitter or Reddit.


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