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Justin Kates (City of Nashua, New Hampshire)

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: I’m Justin Kates, Director of Emergency Management for the City of Nashua, NH. I’ve served Nashua for ten years, and before that worked five years for the Delaware Emergency Management Agency after graduating high school in 2006. I’m a graduate of the University of Delaware where I majored in Emergency Management and Public Administration and I am currently studying at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security. I have been a Certified Emergency Manager since 2015.

What do you consider essential skillsets for EM? I recommend focusing on three essential skillsets. 1. Project Management, 2. Cultural Competence 3. Crisis and Risk Communications.

Can you recommend suggested training / credentials? The International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Associate Emergency Manager (AEM) and Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) credentials are a great way to demonstrate that you’re a well-rounded emergency manager. The combination of the essay, exam, training, and professional contributions demonstrate that you think beyond simply showing up to work every day.

What do we do? Why do we do it? Why is it important? Believe it or not there’s not a consistent definition of what the emergency manager does. I had the opportunity to participate in a project this year with the Emergency Management Growth Initiative (EMGI) to define emergency management and we came up with the following: Emergency Management is the coordinated enterprise-wide function charged with managing projects and innovative initiatives to proactively reduce risk and respond to the hazard impacts felt by individuals, organizations, and the whole community. I really think that definition is broad enough to explain the variety of activities emergency managers are involved in.

What makes your job unique and enjoyable? There’s always something new, every day. This profession allows you to interact with all members of the community and the public. I’ve always said, you get to engage with all of the same people the city manager does, except all of your interactions are focused around reducing risk.

What are your “go-to” publications in the field? Some key books that have been pretty important to framing my view of emergency management. The Edge of Disaster by Stephen Flynn, The Resilience Dividend by Judith Rodin, Truth Decay by RAND Corporation, Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, The Ostrich Paradox by Robert Meyer & Howard Kunreuther, and Infrastructure by Brian Hayes.

What do you consider the most valuable resource on your bookshelf? After action reports. Emergency managers don’t read enough of them, and don’t take action on the findings within their own jurisdictions or organizations.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in EM? There are many things but I’d say the most critical was that even the most minor incident isn’t over until it’s over. Always anticipate that a project or emergency response is going to take a lot longer than you think.

How did you learn it? During one of my first major incidents, a Nor’easter with some pretty unexpected damage to the City, I didn’t really have a good handle initially with the impacts to our community and infrastructure. I initially told some of our key stakeholders in the City that we would head over to the EOC to do some clean up and we would probably be done by lunch. We were engaged in emergency response at the EOC for over a week, and long term recovery for months after. I was really wrong on my initial assessment!

What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had gotten when you were starting out? Many here but I think two big things are to adopt a risk management mindset to how you develop your emergency management program: “a process for identifying, analyzing, and communicating risk and accepting, avoiding, transferring, or controlling it to an acceptable level considering associated costs and benefits of any actions taken”. Second would be if you’re building a brand new program (as I was in Nashua in 2011), you’re in the best position you’ll ever be in to use consensus based standards to develop your program, using something like Emergency Management Accreditation Program’s (EMAP) Emergency Management Standard. Personally I would have liked it if someone would have told me to listen more than I speak when I was just getting off in the field!

What should every new EM practitioner do / focus on / remember? Your success during an incident is based on effective notification of your population, getting the right stakeholders together to coordinate the incident, and finding the best ways to gather information about what’s going on. If you can’t get those three things right, you’ll be in big trouble for everything after.

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what steps should they take? Find a mentor that wants to see you succeed. Network with as many people as possible throughout your career. Never stop learning, we’re never experts. Get involved with a professional association like IAEM to help you do all of those things.

What are some things that new EM practitioners can do that would be applicable across the EM spectrum? Learn strong project management skills. The majority of the activities an emergency manager does regardless of if they are in government, non-profits, or the private sector is managing projects. Too often we try to develop unique business practices to the work we do in emergency management, instead we should leverage smart practices from other industries within our profession. The other thing would be to understand your community, customers, clients, employees, etc. The people under your care are all not the same, each with different needs and capabilities that they bring to the table, and it’s important to understand the demographics of those who you serve before, during, and after a crisis.

What message would you like to convey to the EM community as a whole? COVID-19 will be a pivotal moment for the emergency management profession. It’s up to emergency managers to think differently about the work we do, and even consider tearing apart and reconfiguring the way we do business.

To learn more about Justin Kates, visit his LinkedIn profile. You can also follow him on Twitter.


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