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Jeff Schlegelmilch (Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness – Columbia 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.

Tell us about yourself: My name is Jeff Schlegelmilch. I am the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Climate School at Columbia University. I have been in this field for nearly 17 years now, in different positions in public health preparedness, healthcare system readiness, consultative roles, and disaster education and research.

Can you recommend suggested training / credentials? First and foremost are the guiding doctrine for your desired area of responsibility. If it is in the United States, that will be various trainings and strategy documents like the National Response Framework, the National Disaster Recovery Framework, the National Incident Management System, as well as a myriad of strategies such as FEMA’s strategic plan, the National Biodefense Strategy, and others. The first place to start would be the FEMA independent study trainings, as well as various agency websites as there are overviews of the relevant doctrine and associated programs. But beyond that, it is important to think about what you want to actually do in this field. If you want to be a responder, you may want to stay abreast of OSHA regulations and take some trainings and get certifications around hazmat and emergency medical assistance.  If you are looking to work in more of a coordinating role, you may want to look closer at business continuity and project management programs. Everyone takes a different path, and so there are really no wrong answers here. But in choosing how to develop your skills, think about what you are interested in doing, and branch out from there.

What do we do? Why do we do it? Why is it important? Emergency management is at its core a planning, coordination and consultative function. I think this is what makes it so hard for those outside the field to fully understand what we do. Response is a very visible, very tangible thing with lights and sirens and people running into harm’s way. Creating protocols, planning for contingencies and working across different sectors of government and civil society is not as photogenic, but is critical for making sure that there is harmony in overall efforts.

What makes your job unique and enjoyable? In my current role, I get to work with a myriad of different stakeholders and researchers to better understand what the current science has to offer, and how that can meaningfully be translated into solutions for disaster research, policy and practice. We do very applied work, much more so than is typical in academia, while also looking to capture lessons and data that is useful to the next disaster.

What are your “go-to” publications in the field? I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my book: Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First Century Megadisasters. It was written as a primer on how human developed is amplifying our disaster threats as well as the underlying vulnerabilities, and how we can better manage disasters through more sustainable development. There are a lot of great scholars in the field with books coming out, or recently out. Black Wave by Daniel Aldrich, The Children of Katrina by Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek, and Disasterology by Samantha Montano are just a few mentions among many worthy texts. Additionally, I think any books that stretch the thinking, especially the books that are somewhat adjacent to emergency management, such as in business and organizational development as well as history among others. These all help to enrich our understanding of the world around us, and provides new insights and perspectives to bring into our work.

What do you consider the most valuable resource on your bookshelf? My thesaurus. A lot of times we need to say the same thing in a lot of different ways for it to resonate with different audiences. It is also a reminder that not everyone wants to hear something from the same person. We need to broaden our vocabulary as well as our communicators within communities to truly broaden our reach.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in EM? Every organization, and even every person that enters into the field of emergency management has different reasons for doing so. We use similar language but our motivations and mandates are all different. With a passion for doing big things, this can lead to conflict or it can lead to some incredible work, depending on how we engage with each other.

How did you learn it? I learned a lot of this from management training programs in separate industries, as well as in my MBA studies. At the end of the day, agencies and stakeholders are all part of a networked structure that are simultaneously independent in their respective operations, and dependent on the actions of others.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had gotten when you were starting out? There are a lot of great people out there looking to do the right things for the right reasons. Seek them out, learn from them, and collaborate with them. Don’t work with a**holes if you don’t have to. Life is too short to waste on other people’s egos.

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

  • Never stop learning.
  • The trust that people put in you is a sacred thing, even if you don’t feel you deserve it. Treat it with the utmost care.
  • If it seems like no matter what you do it will be seen as wrong, then be wrong on your terms.

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what steps should they take? The most important thing is that people follow a path they set for themselves. My footsteps took a long a winding road that included entering the field shortly after 9/11 when there was an influx of resources, and limited talent available. It gave me entry level opportunities to learn and be a part of things that seemed to be a once in a lifetime occurrence. But now, with us eventually being in a post-COVID era, with increasing climate disasters, it may not have been such a rare circumstance after all. Take every opportunity you can. If it sucks, learn as much as you can from it. If it is great, learn as much as you can from it.

What are some things that new EM practitioners can do that would be applicable across the EM spectrum? Get out in the community you are responsible for. Go to events, art shows, farmers markets, pancake breakfasts. The emergency manager helps to build resilience across civil society. It is about a lot more than procedures and plans. It is about people. Learn what is important to them, and why. Learn who the informal community leaders are. Most of all, get outside of your comfort zone. Your experience is only one part of what makes your community your community.

What message would you like to convey to the EM community as a whole? The table is often set for disaster management in decisions and actions outside of the realm of emergency management. At least as emergency management is currently structured. This field is going to continue to evolve, and the successful emergency manager is going to be one that embraces this change and looks to continue to not only operate within this field, but to help re-imagine it as we learn more and integrate further with the whole community.

To learn more about Jeff Schlegelmilch, follow him on Twitter and Facebook, or check out the Disaster Politics podcast.


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