Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Fires. Terrorism. It seems like every day you hear about one disaster or another striking a community either at home or abroad. When these disasters strike —and before — it’s important to have individuals who are trained in emergency and disaster management to coordinate the response, mitigate the damage and help save lives and property.

Whether they work in the field, coordinating the triage of victims or managing the cleanup, or in an administrative role, developing response plans and coordinating with other responding agencies, these trained professionals play a key role in the response to and recovery from both natural and man made disasters.

Careers in Disaster Management

Disaster management professionals generally work with public health organizations, such as hospitals, government agencies or nonprofit organizations, to prepare for and manage emergencies when they occur. Individuals such as first responders (police, fire, and EMT), teachers, community leaders and city officials – really anyone responsible for the health and safety of the community – often seek disaster management certification. The training allows them to serve roles in planning and preparation, incident command, communication and coordination.

In some cases, disaster management is a professional’s only job; for example, a hospital or healthcare system may employ a disaster or emergency manager to plan and coordinate the facility’s response to large-scale emergencies. In others, the professional may serve in an advisory role; for example, a city planner who has training and certification in disaster management can serve as an advisor on the city’s disaster planning committee and use his or her knowledge of crisis management to guide planning decisions.

Disaster and emergency management training and education can also lead to careers with state and federal emergency management organizations, such as FEMA. The average salary for a career in disaster management is around $48,000, although managers in large cities or administrators of large organizations can earn significantly more. Since some disaster and emergency management professionals work day-to-day in other capacities (e.g. teaching), holding a certification can increase their salaries.


In general, most colleges and universities do not offer a degree path for disaster management. However, students of public health, health administration, law enforcement, public administration and communication often seek certification in disaster management. Several educational institutions offer certification programs, either in conjunction with a master’s degree program or as a freestanding certificate program. A degree such as a master of science in nursing would assist you in finding a career in disaster management.

Although disaster and emergency management coursework is generally offered at the graduate level, a bachelor’s degree is not always a requirement for admission. Some programs allow experienced professionals to enroll regardless of whether they hold a degree, and they may allow the credits earned to be applied toward a bachelor’s degree program. However, programs that offer a certificate track in conjunction with a master’s degree – typically in public health or administration – usually require applicants to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

Coursework in disaster management takes approximately one year to complete and includes courses in the psychology and sociology of disasters, emergency management and recovery, public health emergencies and hazard management. Courses help students understand the roles and responsibilities of local, state and federal agencies; the basic protocols for protecting lives and property during emergencies; and how to communicate in disaster situations.

Certified Emergency Manager Certification

It’s important to note that graduate-level disaster certification programs offer a certificate that is different from the Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification offered by the International Association of Emergency Managers. The CEM credential is the highest level of recognition that a disaster manager can achieve; it requires education, professional experience and passing a written examination.

However, earning a certificate from a graduate program can help you qualify for the CEM assessment process. The CEM requires at least 200 contact hours in emergency and general management – in the classroom or in the field – and credits earned in graduate certificate programs are applicable. Some disaster management education and training programs offer optional coursework to prepare professionals for the CEM credentialing process and exam.

In the wake of such headline-grabbing disasters as Hurricane Katrina, the tornadoes in Birmingham, AL and Joplin, MO and 9/11, emergency preparedness has become a popular and growing field. Whether you plan to pursue a career in disaster response or simply add the skills to your portfolio and provide assistance in the event of an emergency, studying the principles and practices of disaster management is worthwhile.