Prepared Not Scared: Careers in Disaster Relief

by Sarah Cunningham

October 16, 2019

Disasters like fires and floods can strike at any time, and the damage they cause can devastate entire communities. Government agencies, nonprofit groups, and private companies employ those with a desire to help to minimize damage and restore communities. Careers in disaster relief can be immensely challenging, rewarding, and are vital to ensuring better outcomes in the case of a disaster. In this article, I will discuss employment, opportunities, and training in disaster relief.

Working Together

Emergency management is a coordinated effort between all levels of government, non-profit organizations, and, to a lesser extent, private companies. The Oregon Military Department’s Office of Emergency Management division leads statewide emergency management efforts in all four stages of disaster relief – preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. They coordinate with more than 30 other state agencies and organizations to carry out a range of emergency support functions, which include transportation, communications, and search and rescue efforts.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Army Corps of Engineers assist at the federal level. Nonprofit organizations and, to some degree, private companies also employ those dedicated to disaster relief.

Employment Is Difficult to Capture

The full scope of disaster relief employment is difficult to capture. This is because many related jobs are captured in other sectors of employment. For example, medical professionals such as doctors, nurses, and mental health counselors would certainly provide services to those affected by a disaster, but their employment is primarily captured in other sectors such as general medical and surgical hospitals. Some emergency management employment, however, is captured in the subsector community food and housing and emergency and other relief services. Available employment records for this sector date back to 2003 when it employed 2,600 people. Since then, employment has grown by 37 percent to roughly 3,550 jobs in 2017.
Opportunities at All Levels of Education

Disaster relief is a complicated effort, and as such, a wide range of occupations are needed within the field. The top three occupations within the subsector are all social and human service occupations. Social and human service assistants, community and social service specialists, and social and community service managers made up more than one-fifth (22%) of disaster relief employment in 2017.
Education requirements for occupations in disaster relief vary greatly, and like with most occupations, wages generally increase along with education requirements. Social and human service assistants need only a high school diploma to begin working in the field and earn an annual average wage of $38,756. On the other end, financial managers need at least a bachelor’s degree and earn an average annual wage of $120,979.  

Pros and Cons

A career in disaster relief can be challenging in ways that are physical, mental, emotional, and intellectual depending on the job. Alaina Mayfield is an emergency management planner for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management who works to develop the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment and the Stakeholder Preparedness Reports for the state. She also serves as the State National Incident Management System coordinator and is responsible for catastrophic planning. She describes one of her biggest challenges as collecting the large amount of information needed for emergency management reports and turning that information into meaningful metrics. She conveys this challenge with the question, “How do you measure how prepared you are until a disaster strikes and you realize what you don’t have or didn’t do?” Other jobs in disaster relief may be more physically or mentally challenging, as some require being on call for long periods of time, traveling on short notice, or witnessing the effects of devastation first hand.

A career in disaster relief can be rewarding. Many enjoy the challenges that come with planning for or responding to disasters. Alaina Mayfield is one of those people. “I enjoy planning and all the research and discussion that comes with the process [of planning for a disaster]. I get to learn about new and interesting scenarios every day and try to determine how we should respond and test them accordingly.”

Preparing for a Career

Although a large number of occupations are related to disaster relief, there are some common skills among all workers in the field. Problem solving skills and the ability to adapt to changing scenarios is vital to many of these jobs. As many different organizations work together to plan and provide relief for emergencies, the ability to work with others and good communication skills are also essential.

The education, experience, and training typically required to enter occupations in disaster relief vary greatly. Disaster relief workers may complete formal programs in emergency management or obtain other credentials such as the Certified Emergency Manager and the Certified Business Professional designations. If you are interested in learning about disaster relief, Alaina Mayfield recommends participating in a free online course by FEMA. For those interested in working in the field, she recommends a program like FEMA Corps.

Many others learn different aspects of relief work through experience in related positions or by volunteering. For example, serving in the military or certain healthcare professions provide a good foundation for dealing with emergencies. As Alaina says, “There are lots of parts to emergency management. It’s a matter of finding out which part someone likes best.”

For more information about occupations in this article, visit the Bureau of Labor statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook or the Oregon Employment Department’s Occupation & Wage Information tool.


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