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Mick Fleming (Northwest Central Joint Emergency Management System)

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 am Mick Fleming, the Director of the Northwest Central Joint Emergency Management System. Our agency serves as the shared emergency management office for 11 municipalities in northwest Cook County. I have been in this position for 6 years, but I have been working in emergency management for 12 years. I started my career working in business continuity which piqued my interest in disaster management and eventually led to me pursuing a career in public sector emergency management. I maintain the Illinois Professional Emergency Manager (IPEM) certification through the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) as well as the Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification through the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).

What do you consider essential skillsets for EM? As an Emergency Manager you need to be adaptable to a variety of people and environments. We work with people from all walks of life and in a different setting each day. It is important to be comfortable being in a suit giving a presentation one day and then dressed in waders working in floods the next day.

Can you recommend suggested training / credentials? If you are new to the field, the number of training opportunities can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to rush to finish every training that exists. Start with the basics and progressively work towards some of the certifications and designations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a great set of courses through their independent study program which can help get anyone started. I would recommend that someone new to the field start with FEMA’s Professional Development Series to establish a base. Additionally, IEMA frequently offers training free of charge and offers courses that are required for the Illinois Professional Development Series certification and the IPEM. Once you start to get your basic courses completed, set longer-term goals of completing FEMA’s Basic Academy or Advanced Academy.

What do we do? Why do we do it? Why is it important? In my experience, the job of an emergency manager is to bring people together for a common cause to accomplish a task. We help to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas amongst stakeholders to ensure that we are preparing for, responding to, recovering from, and mitigating the impacts of all potential threats and hazards with a clear understanding of how our actions are going to impact our community and how we can support each other in accomplishing the task. We are the ones who break down the walls between departments, organizations, and communities so that everyone’s voice is at the table. We do this so that we can make informed and coordinated decisions, so that when a disaster strikes everyone who has a role is on the same page, ready to support the communities that we serve. Our role is important because it helps to ensure that no one gets left out, too often assumptions are made that leave portions of our community open risk or left without services where good communication and coordination would have prevented those issues. We help to make those connections and fill the gaps.

What makes your job unique and enjoyable? Every single day is a new challenge and we are constantly getting to interact with new people. I can say that working in emergency management is a bit of a roller coaster ride at times, you never know what the day might bring. There will be days where we are in the office developing a plan or an exercise and then there are days where we are working on an evacuation or opening the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

What are your “go-to” publications in the field? I try to keep up with scholarly articles from the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (IJMED) when I am looking for new research in the field.

What do you consider the most valuable resource on your bookshelf? I have a textbook on my bookshelf titled The Law of Emergencies. The book has always been a good reference for how some of the federal and state laws impact how we perform our jobs. This book gave me a good foundation for understanding emergency management law and I find myself going back to it when I am looking for direction regarding laws that affect our field.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in EM? Always make sure to check on and take care of the people around you no matter how hectic things get.

How did you learn it? I once worked in an EOC during a wildfire where we were working long hours, 7 days a week. Every person in the room was extremely positive and gave 100% of their effort to support the people impacted by the wildfire. At one point, I learned that a handful of our people working in the EOC had lost their homes and everything they owned, and their families were staying in the same shelters that we were working to support. These people came to work every day with a smile and determination to make other people’s lives better even though they did not have a home to go back to at the end of the day. I take that experience with me every time we open our EOC and I am very conscious of how the disasters we respond to may be impacting the lives and families of the people in the room.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish you had gotten when you were starting out? It is important to have a long-term plan for your agency and your career, but take each day as it comes to learn as much as you can from every experience good or bad.

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

  • It is okay to listen more than you speak.
  • Remember that personal connections are the foundation of the relationships you build.
  • Focus on understanding why things work the way they do, which laws, policies, or guidance drives how things function.

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what steps should they take? Every emergency manager has a focus or a niche that is close to their heart, but those roles or positions might not be available to you right away. Take advantage of the opportunities in front of you and learn from your experiences, whether that be volunteer, part-time, or full-time. Getting your foot in the door as a planner or a trainer may open you up to a world of experiences that you can draw on to make you a better emergency manager. Every experience is an opportunity to build your resume and your understanding of the field.

What are some things that new EM practitioners can do that would be applicable across the EM spectrum? I have found that having an understanding of the broader functions of government and government structures is just as important as understanding the role of emergency management. Different levels of government have different responsibilities and each has a different structure. Having a better understanding of how a municipality, county, tribal, territorial or state government functions as well as the relationships between those governments will go a long way in understanding how emergency management fits into the picture at each level.

What message would you like to convey to the EM community as a whole? Emergency Management as a profession is still young, but we have come a long way from the days of civil defense. I look at the progress that we have made in professionalizing the field and I am filled with excitement thinking about the opportunities that we have to take it a step further by advancing research, increasing professionalism, and enhancing our practice. The more we can share our experiences, processes, and best practices to learn from each other, the better we can make this field for those we serve and for those who will come after us.

To learn more about Mick Fleming, visit his LinkedIn profile.


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