Emergency Manager | Speaker | Writer

Tag: professional development

Leadership: A Call to Action for Emergency Managers

By Jenny Novak & Alison Poste for the Emergency Management Growth Initiative

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Emergency Managers are experts in the art of compromise and consensus.

With infinite hazard scenarios to prepare for, including the emergence of cascading disasters as a reality, the job of an Emergency Manager is defined by our ability to adapt, pivot and re-prioritize based on the needs of the incident. In an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in particular, the most effective Emergency Managers (EMs) are those who can “[get] highly specialized groups like doctors, police, wastewater management, economists, lawyers, politicians, etc. to come to a consensus on an emergency timetable,” according to Jason Vezina, the CEO of Prepared Canada Corp. What this means in practice, is the most effective EM is one who can synthesize multiple and disparate perspectives, and ensure any resulting solution is responsive to the needs of the emergency or operational period. It’s no surprise that what makes an exceptional EM are also the traits sought after in leadership positions – in both senior management and elected official contexts. 

In order to move our discipline forward, consideration of our collective career growth and leadership opportunities is needed. We need to think beyond traditional goals of rising to leadership of state and national emergency management agencies. You may think that you have hit the ceiling in your current organization if you are in the most senior emergency management position. But perhaps there is room for local career growth into a broader leadership role that you haven’t yet considered.

As our profession matures, our backgrounds will be seen as less ‘niche’ and more essential to the core function of organizations – perfect platforms for leadership. We are so focused on the ever exciting world of disasters, many of us haven’t considered that we can (and should!) pursue promotional opportunities into the positions that oversee and dictate emergency management policy in our organizations. Leveraging our considerable experience and knowledge of best practises into policy positions will help to ensure that programming, budgets and departments incorporate an ‘EM’ perspective into corporate governance.  

The payoff for our field will be huge if we can collectively make an effort to step into these positions and get the emergency management perspective integrated into boardroom meetings across the world. Rather than relying on our bosses to advocate for our programs, we can be the ones doing it directly if we become our bosses. Someone has to step into the leadership role, so why not emergency managers? 


You may worry that you don’t have the technical expertise or financial acumen to advance into a role that oversees multiple departments. However, anyone who advances to the highest level of leadership in organizations must generalize their knowledge. The more departments and programs under the purview of the leader, the less likely the person is to have intimate familiarity with all of them. Emergency managers already have an advantage in this regard because our work inherently familiarizes us with the different departments, functions and branches of our organizations. In order to develop a strong emergency plan and EOC team, we are already working with various departments across the organization. For continuity planning, we have honed in on the most essential functions of our organizations, we’ve learned who is responsible and the processes involved. These functions are not emergency management specific, however we have intimate knowledge of them that most other professionals do not possess. 


Emergency managers are natural leaders. We run toward the fires rather than away from them. While others are shying away and melting down, we turn it on and rise to the challenge of crisis mode. When an emergency strikes our jurisdictions, we are the ones who elevate into the EOC Director roles (or advise the Directors in our roles as coordinators). Our colleagues and constituents turn to us for recommendations on next steps to handle the incident. They rely on us to be forward thinking and unwavering in times of crisis. Simply by stepping into this role as crisis leaders, we are demonstrating core competencies that are essential in everyday leadership. Many leaders would say that crises are some of the most challenging times to be in charge, and emergency managers are already leading during disasters.

Knowledge of Systems

We also have an understanding of the underlying societal systems that impact our organizations and our constituents. We are acutely aware of the factors that influence vulnerability and which segments of the community need the most support during disasters. Unsurprisingly, these populations tend to need the most support outside of crises as well. Disparities in access to resources, systemic racism, and generational poverty have huge impacts on who is disproportionately impacted during disaster. We are in tune with these and the cascade of negative impacts that can occur to these populations post-disaster. Oftentimes a simple promotion of personal preparedness is not enough to help, we need to address these inequities on a system wide level at the community level, and that work begins during blue skies. As an example, many Indigenous and remote communities face disproportionately greater impacts as a result of disasters. Our emergency management perspectives are a wonderful primer to these larger societal issues and chronic stressors that impact long term community health.


Emergency managers are relationship builders. Our jobs require us to motivate others without direct line authority as we must find creative ways to encourage compliance and participation across departmental lines. This is best accomplished through building strong working and interpersonal relationships with colleagues, establishing trust, and building knowledge of what skills, motivations, and hurdles are in their daily work. We know the importance of building connections prior to disasters, so we invest in our social fabric and take the time to get to know others in our organizations. These relationships that pay off in a big way during disasters can also reward us as we advance professionally since we have already established allies across and beyond our organizations. When we promote, our networks will allow us to transition smoothly into our new roles and strengthen the relationships we formed in emergency management.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

A Step Above

We all know that the buck stops with the policy group (aka your organization’s elected leaders). While the advancement of emergency managers into VP or C-suite roles will be a huge boost to the discipline, emergency managers filling elected roles will truly instigate positive change. Emergency management provides a fantastic background for politics. Our missions are both altruistic and inspirational; life safety, preparedness and resilience are easy sells for public support. While a traditional law enforcement background can be politically divisive, emergency managers provide a more strategic and holistic approach to cultivating safe communities. The relationship skills that we use to motivate people to prepare for emergencies and strong networks we have built throughout our regions can be huge assets to launching a political campaign. Instead of strategizing on how we can get our elected officials to invest in disaster resilience, why not become the elected officials?

Three Years Working for a State Emergency Management Agency: What I’ve Learned

Last week amidst the continued frenzy of the COVID-19 response, I hit a big milestone: my three year anniversary working for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES). This is a milestone I’ve come close to at a couple different jobs but have never surpassed. Prior to this position all of my experience comes from the local and campus level (and a touch of private & NGO sectors). When I set out on this journey three years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what it would bring. I was hoping to gain response experience (big check) and gain a broader understanding of emergency management functions over multiple jurisdictions (check). Today I’m reflecting on what the major lessons and takeaways have been thus far. 

Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

The Heartbeat of Incident Response

The past three years have been some of the very busiest response years in the state’s history. My first 6 months were eerily quiet, but ever since then we haven’t stopped engaging in either response or recovery. We saw some of the state’s largest wildfires and I was directly involved in response and recovery for the Thomas Fire and the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County. I also responded to the Borderline shooting in 2018 and now I’m embedded in a pandemic response. Our agency responded to the earthquakes in Trona / Ridgecrest last summer too while I was out on maternity leave.

While there are many detailed technical lessons I’ve learned, I would say the important big picture take away from all this experience is a better understanding of the battle rhythm of these incidents, particularly wildfires since there have been so many. I’m no stranger to the flurry of information, the whirlwind adrenaline and anxiety of a wildfire sparking during Santa Ana winds and the lifesaving push for evacuations. I have endured the weeks long EOC activations and felt the burn out from both responders and evacuated residents. I have navigated the turn from a response toward a recovery and rebuilding effort. I have settled in for the long haul and partnered up with FEMA for major disaster recovery operations and the establishment of long term recovery groups. Each phase comes with a different pace, a different flavor and different prioritized information needs. 

Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash

Responsiveness for Relationship Building

It’s been said time and time again, so I won’t take time to explain that relationships are key in emergency management. But I will share one strategy to build good relationships that I have discovered during my time with CalOES: Responsiveness. It can certainly be difficult to practice, especially when we are all so busy right now with this response or even just in the normal day to day managing our own programs. It can be tempting to only reply quickly to the most time sensitive emails, or to the ones that will impact you the most directly (i.e. the ones from the boss). But, I have really tried to pride myself on being responsive to inquiries from colleagues both in and outside of my organization and I have found it to pay dividends. 

My role is a little bit tricky because while as a regional liaison I am the face of the organization to many of my EM colleagues in SoCal, I also work in a field office and am not directly embedded within all the various state programming in Sacramento. Accordingly I get a lot of questions thrown my way and I often don’t know the answers. At first I felt embarrassed about this and it was tempting to just flag an email and let it sit. No one in my chain of command would ever know if I just didn’t field the question. Instead, I have practiced replying quickly to the person–it lets them know that I care about their question or concern, that I’m here for them and that I will try to advocate for them and get their question answered as quickly as I can. Then I try to dig up answers. If I do know the answer, I try to reply right away even from my phone while I’m in the field instead of waiting to get back to my computer the next day. People have really appreciated this “customer service” type of strategy, and I believe that relationships are strengthened significantly when we engage in these small exchanges of information and correspondence.

Photo by Natalie Pedigo on Unsplash

The Importance of Teams

The majority of Emergency Management jobs are one person shops that do not come with a dedicated team. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most about working at the state level is that I am a part of a massive extended team and a close knit team here in the Southern Region. Throughout the years I’ve seen our team step up to support each other through the good times and the bad and I’m so happy to work with a great group of folks. When I needed to take time off to have a baby last year, I wasn’t worried at all because I knew I was leaving my projects in capable hands and that the team would be able to backfill me. It’s one of the perks I treasure the most.

Just because your position doesn’t come with a built in team, doesn’t mean that you can’t work to build one. Most of us manage EOC’s and that can be a great place to start. You may not be able to groom anyone on your EOC team to fall in love with EM quite as much as you have, but you can at least work to get one or two good EOC coordinator backups or train up a Planning or Sit Stat Unit to alleviate some of the stress from an incident falling 100% on your shoulders. During my time as the EM for Cal State Northridge, I worked to build a ‘preparedness coalition’ that became my interdepartmental team. I held regular meetings and got them jazzed about some of the fun preparedness events I was planning. My enthusiasm and angle of making it enjoyable got a couple of them hooked and even scored one of them a trip to the White House with me to accept a FEMA Individual & Community Preparedness Award for our efforts. It might not be the easiest or most obvious solution but I think that operating as part of a team is extremely important for emergency managers.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash


Working for the state, I feel like we constantly have to work toward attaining an appropriate balance. Mainly between providing the leadership that is sought from our large, statewide agency and respecting the expertise and unparalleled local knowledge of our Southern California emergency managers. We have to find the sweet spot between stringent mandates and hands off silence, often opting for issuing a kind of ‘guidance’ on hot topic issues. However, sometimes our initiatives are tied to local eligibility for state funding and this is when we can quickly fall from favor if our guidelines are too demanding or not so feasible. During my 3 year tenure I have heard both opinions: “the state should be doing more,” and “the state keeps pushing things on us and asking too many questions.”

One niche that I think we can fill to maintain some balance is by identifying and creating opportunities to share best practices. Because I work with eleven counties in my role, I am uniquely positioned to see and hear about different programs and processes that have been successful in different jurisdictions. I see it as an excellent utilization of our position to be able to make others aware of these best practices and to create forums for this type of information sharing. While I haven’t really been able to create brand new initiatives, I have tried my best to bring these best practices into some of the forums I do have influence over, such as our quarterly mutual aid committee meetings and the recent workshops for our catastrophic earthquake plan. I would love to work to expand these efforts in the future and continue to provide that mechanism for sharing.


It’s been a great ride and I’ve really enjoyed the journey so far. Although sometimes I miss having my own program and a more hands on role, I wouldn’t trade these past three years for anything. What kind of lessons do you think are important to share from your level with EM’s from other types of jurisdictions?

Advancing Your Career While on Maternity Leave

As 2019 ends, my six month maternity leave from my full-time job is drawing to a close. Before deciding to take such a long leave of absence, I was aware of some of the drawbacks that parents (women in particular) face when taking time off from a career to care for children. A 2018 study by the National Women’s Law Center revealed that mothers earn only 71 cents for every dollar that men earn—meaning that having Scarlett G theoretically decreased my earning potential from the 81 cents on that dollar that females without children earn. This so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ results in mothers earning an average of $16,000 less annually than men. The same study shows that employers view mothers as less devoted to their jobs. Another study shows that women’s income drops 30% and never catches up!

As I begin to think about the impending sad day where I will leave my girl at day care all day of course I feel tempted to just prolong my leave and stay home with her, especially given the price tag of the day care. But I also remember that taking additional unpaid time off or quitting my job to become a stay at home mom comes with an even steeper motherhood penalty. According to the Center for American Progress, a young woman who takes 5 years off to care for children can expect her lifetime earnings to be reduced by a whopping 20%. While this may seemingly make immediate financial sense due to the rising costs of childcare (particularly for infants), there are hidden factors that must be accounted for such as the opportunity cost (the impact of the break on her potential raises and promotions) and the reduction in wages saved for her retirement. These hidden lifetime costs could actually amount to 3 times the wages lost alone. Additional studies have shown the longer the maternity leave, the heavier the burden upon return.

Knowing all of this (and being the ambitious, career-oriented type that I am) I wanted to make sure that my maternity leave was productive. I wanted to stay in the game and view it as a sort of sabbatical rather than a break in my career. As glorious as it has been to stay home with Scarlett and play with her, I do my best to stay engaged in my field of work and use the time wisely to hopefully continue advancing my career trajectory and offset those pesky motherhood penalties and opportunity costs. For mothers-to-be who are considering these factors as well, here are some ideas to help keep your career growth pointed upward even when you aren’t working your full-time job.

Writing in a coffee shop just before Scarlett arrived.


If you’re reading this it’s probably no secret to you that I’ve been pretty busy with writing while I’ve been off work. I have been writing articles for my website regularly—every other week has been a feasible frequency for me. I have also been writing for a book project that I’m working on. While I’m not yet paid to be a writer, I have been writing best practices and reflections on my emergency management career that I hope will continue to elevate my profile as an SME in this profession. The great thing about writing and putting your work out there is that people will continue to read it long after you first shared it, and it’s something productive that you can do in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep after a nighttime feed. All fields cherish written communication skills and with the rise of LinkedIn and other social platforms you can easily share your written professional thoughts with potential future employers, headhunters or clients. If straight up writing articles isn’t your thing then work on a portfolio website–it’s so easy to build your on site these days with Wix and other similar sites and a great way to ensure your work pops up first when someone Googles you.

Reading on the Kindle with a sleeping baby.


My wonderful husband gifted me a Kindle for our one year anniversary in September. At first I was very surprised and not sure I’d like it—I’ve always been a physical book person and one year is supposed to be the paper anniversary and this was the true opposite of a paper gift! But I came to find that reading digitally on my super lightweight, palm sized Kindle was extremely easy to do while breastfeeding Scarlett—so much better than using an app on my massive ipad or straining to flipping the page constantly on my phone. I have been able to read several professional books on Kindle in the past few months, which help me keep up to date with ideas in both EM and general leadership / management. For me, reading stimulates continued thought growth on the professional world even when I am physically outside of it and feeling like my sole purpose is as a milk factory.

Scarlett during one of our lunch dates.

Coffee / Lunch Dates

Relationships are at the core of my realm as an emergency manager, but I’m a firm believer that they are pretty dang important in every field. The best way to grow your career potential is through your network—where you’re likely to learn about optimal opportunities. This is not something you can do immediately—certainly not within the first 4 weeks, wait until baby gets a little bit bigger and slightly more predictable. I reached out to a couple of previous managers and just asked to grab lunch, as well as met up for coffee (and happy hour) with a couple past colleagues. Staying in touch with colleagues and leaders in your field is always great and since you’ve got some time on your hands and an adorable little baby to introduce this can be an ideal time to deepen the connections in your network.

Professional Associations

I’m already pretty heavily involved in my professional associations, so I didn’t really amp up my participation much during this time, but I did continue it. Join a committee, listen in on a webinar, or just use it as a chance to really read the organization’s newsletters and better understand what they’ve been up to and how you can become a more engaged (or at least informed) member! If your organization offers a credential or certificate for certain professional contributions (like the CEM in our field) now is a great time to strategize how you can achieve this and start chipping away at the requirements or documentation involved.


I’m not currently in a place in my life where I’m looking to continue formal education since I already have a Master’s degree and am a Ph.D. dropout with no plans to return. But if I didn’t have my master’s or if there was a certificate program I had my eyes on I would most certainly have looked into taking a class online or worked on an application. While being a mom to a newborn is extremely taxing, the reading and writing required of online class participants is something you can fit in during the downtime and in your PJs!

At an all staff meeting in our EOC 8 weeks postpartum.

In Conclusion

Obviously your priority during this time should be snuggling and spending quality time with your new mini human, and many people wouldn’t trade any of their brain power for career stuff during this sleep deprived time. But the motherhood penalty is sadly very real, and you will have the benefit of weeks with no meetings scheduled to pursue some of these activities if you want to take a break from baby brain. I would love to hear what other types of professionalization career-oriented parents have pursued during their time off work!