Give Back with a Career in Emergency Management

EMHS Part-time faculty Chris Smith in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
Rebecca A. Eckland

There’s a saying that it’s not a matter of if—but when—disasters will happen. If the past few years have been any indication, it’s hard to doubt whether or not this is true: a worldwide pandemic, fire seasons in the American West, mass shootings at schools and other public places have littered our headlines and Twitter feeds. For most of us, this is not good news, but for those who work in Emergency Management, Public Health, and/or as first responders, the mitigation of risk while setting the stage for rebuilding efforts is a dynamic and necessary line of work and one that enables us to give back and support our communities. TMCC’s Bachelor of Science in Emergency Management and Homeland Security provides the foundational knowledge necessary to this important and diverse line of work. 

"Our EMHS program at TMCC engages a high-caliber cadre of instructors who are not only proficient in understanding and imparting Emergency Management/Homeland Security theory, but, just as importantly, have accumulated many years of practical experience in the field.  All of our instructors equally demonstrate a desire and an innate ability to teach and transfer their knowledge to the next generation of students, providing the applied and practical mastery of emergency management those students need to excel in their careers. The three faculty members featured in this article are clear examples of the type of professionals that make up our faculty; they have a true passion for their field of expertise and are incredibly generous in sharing their collective experiences. I am convinced that these factors are the key to the program’s success,” said EMHS Program Coordinator Jeff Whitesides.

For Emergency Management and Homeland Security (EMHS) part-time faculty Chris Smith whose professional experience includes leading the Individual Assistance Division at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Headquarters in Washington, D.C., there is no more rewarding line of work. As the former Emergency Management Chief for the State of Nevada and former Emergency Management Director for the Washoe County School District, Smith has a long history of creating plans in preparation for the worst possible events and putting those plans in action. 

Smith currently teaches EMHS 412, or the Fiscal Administration for Emergency Management at TMCC, a class that examines the role that finances play in this line of work. “Finances are a huge part of what makes an emergency management program function and what happens in a disaster,” explained Smith. “Anytime there is a disaster going on, local, state and federal elected officials are going to start asking questions of their emergency managers. And so, in this class, we look at the government financial assistance programs, as well as how disasters affect the economics of a community, so students can understand the key elements of financial assistance.

These myriad considerations create what Smith calls “the murky sea of disaster recovery.”  Yet, students in the class benefit from Smith’s insights that can help them to become familiar with federal, state and local programs that can become a part of an emergency manager’s response to any number of disasters, and that can help them to navigate that murky sea toward sustainable and viable solutions that rest well beyond the storm. 

From Local Teacher to National Emergency Manager

While many of us take direct routes to our professional careers, Smith’s path to becoming an emergency management professional began in an unlikely place: social studies classrooms where he taught students at Dilworth Middle School. “Every day was an emergency in somebody’s life. So, my start in emergency management was very early,” he said. 

He was also inspired by his father, an amateur radio operator, who would report developing tornado conditions in Alabama while Smith, his mother and siblings waited safely inside. “I remember thinking: wow, what a cool thing to be doing! I’d much rather be outside with my dad on the radio. That was a public service, public safety thing that amateur radio operators did and still do. So, I always had that in the back of my mind.” 

Yet, it wasn’t until Washoe County School District secured a grant to establish an Emergency Management program that Smith was able to step into a new professional role. By that time, Smith was an administrator at Sparks High School by day and a trained deputy sheriff who served the community on nights and weekends. 

The result, said Smith, was building an Emergency Management program that was a part of a “powerhouse emergency management community” due to a high level of regional collaboration and commitment that created a comprehensive emergency management public safety program in Northern Nevada. This experience led Smith to his 2011 appointment as Homeland Security Advisor to Governor Brian Sandoval. 

Although Smith is a well-experienced Emergency Management Professional, his entry into the profession was an unusual one. Yet, this is something he hopes potential students keep in mind. 

“There is no wrong door to get into Emergency Management,” he said. “A variety of backgrounds and experiences can help people achieve what they want to in their career. Having a degree only helps to hone and focus your knowledge, skills and abilities to jump into what’s a very exciting and much-needed discipline across all levels of government, as well as in the private sector.” 

Emergency Management, Public Health and Safety

Misty Robinson is a part-time TMCC faculty member who teaches EMHS 422, a class on Public Health and Disasters. She has firsthand experience on the vital role that public health plays in any kind of disaster and emergency situation. When Las Vegas experienced a mass fatality shooting in 2017, Robinson was a part of the response team that coordinated resources to the rapidly unfolding, dangerous situation. 

She currently works as a supervisor with the Southern Nevada Health District in Public Health Preparedness. One of her major contributions to Nevada’s emergency management response was writing plans for the health district to respond to a health emergency if one happened in Clark County.  Chief among those plans from the lens of public health has been to prepare for a pandemic like COVID-19, but also for the distribution of antibiotics or other vaccinations if the need arises. 

Understanding federal, state and local guidelines, the logistical concerns of setting up distribution pods for vaccinations or addressing a mass casualty event like the Las Vegas shooting all showcase what Robinson says is so great about the Emergency Management profession. “We all work within the Incident Command Structure, and so we are all speaking the same language,” she said. This creates cohesion across the state’s emergency management and public health professionals, which is vital during times of crisis.

Beyond the shared language of the Incident Command Structure, Robinson reaffirms that within the State of Nevada, emergency management professionals collaborate closely together even when they are geographically distant, which ensures an integrated and well-oiled system that can quickly and effectively respond to emergency situations as they arise. 

“[That is why]: we were prepared to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic… we had people who were trained before this happened to participate in this structure and to respond to that kind of event. Also, we practice and train those plans annually. That way we are not taken by surprise when something happens.” 

Robinson brings her expertise to the class she teaches at TMCC, especially in regards to the vital role public health plays in emergency situations. These include its ten essential functions, which include assessing an incident for its problems, training staff and evaluating the process afterward. The public health lens also sheds light on different kinds of problems, such as healthy equity, a topic that came out of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria. One example of this is making sure that those in need of shelter services can access those services.  “It’s making sure that those who don’t have the means to get out of the city or if they’re in a wheelchair, that they can access structures and services,” she said, citing an example in California when an Emergency Manager was unable to access the shelters in the state because of a medical condition that confines him to a wheelchair. 

“That’s also something that not only public health has to think about, but also Emergency Managers,” she said. “I talk to students about the health equity component and how there is a difference between equality and equity, and how both need to be taken into account.” 

Emergency Management and Mental Health

Needless to say, working in Emergency Management and Public Health is as demanding as it is rewarding. Brandon Brady, Battalion Chief with the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Department who has extensive experience as a fire professional, teaches a class in the EMHS program on an emerging topic in this field: the importance of mental health.  

“Studies show that people want to work in this field because of experiences of childhood trauma. In fact, up to 75% of the people who are EMTs or firefighters or doctors or nurses want to help people because at some point in their lives, they too needed help. So, they project that need into their careers, where they can get a greater sense of purpose and service,” he said. Brady explained this was certainly true for him.  As a teenager, he was involved in a car accident, an event that inspired him to become a fire professional. 

Brady brings his long experience in critical incident stress management to his class, EMHS 322, First Responder Trauma Recovery, which teaches students the nature of psychological trauma, as well as prevention practices they can incorporate into their daily routines.” First responders are inevitably going to see bad things,” he explained. “Critical incident crisis management was developed to help professionals cope with those hard experiences.” 

In a world in which suicide is the number one line of duty death for law enforcement first responders and others who serve in emergency management capacities, learning more about how to recognize the early signs of trauma and to address them is not only key to one’s professional longevity, but to one’s very life. “Up to 40% of first responders could be diagnosed with PTSD in one form or another, and statistically, first responders are three times more likely than the general population to commit suicide,” he said.

In Brady’s class, students learn that societies with warrior classes have historically mitigated the impact of violence by coping strategies that address the cumulative nature of trauma’s lasting impact on our psychological and emotional states. These strategies can include breathing exercises, cold water immersion, yoga, and meditation. 

“This can be a hard space to get into with the macho and alpha-type personalities, so I remind students that practices like yoga, for instance, were given to the warrior-class to help them recover. That’s where meditation actually comes from, it’s not from the new age practitioners of it that we typically think of. The Samurai had calligraphy and art. Knights had poetry and the practice of chivalry. There was always a balance in our culture, a balance that we don’t necessarily have today.” 

Brady’s class teaches fairly new concepts in the field of Emergency Management, especially in terms of trauma prevention. “Mental health is now one of the biggest topics when it comes to military personnel and first responders and hospital personnel. In every age group, the suicide rate is up, as the leading cause of line of duty death, organizations are starting to take mental health a lot more seriously.” 

Brady, who runs the Mental Health Program for his fire department and who has participated on a critical incident management team for 20 years, teaches at TMCC for similar reasons that made him a fire professional to begin with: a desire to give back. “My students who are in law enforcement, paramedics, and firefighters, to students who haven’t entered a career yet. And, just like my job, if I can make just a little bit of a difference, I will be happy,” he said. 

Emergency Management: A Way to Give Back

If you like challenges, a dynamic career filled with problem-solving and you want to give back to your community, a career in Emergency Management will enable you to do that and more. As Smith said: “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when.” Working as an emergency manager, in public health, or as a first responder is a real, tangible way to save lives and create the conditions by which communities can rebuild after disaster strikes. 

“If you are someone who is motivated by finding creative solutions to complex problems, this is a great field for you. You will get to interact with all the public safety agencies in the community and build a coalition of folks that can step to take on the most difficult challenges that may befall your community, and that’s really exciting for those of us who work in the field,” Smith said.”It’s a job where you can help people on their worst days, and that is what makes it so rewarding.” 

Smith, who has presented and taught Emergency Management topics at several institutions around the country including Georgetown University, George Washington University, Virginia Tech University, any the University of Mississippi and several others, said that returning to teach at TMCC has been one of his goals for a long time, and that serves his sense of purpose as an emergency management professional. 

“I’m really committed to the students at TMCC and in Northern Nevada. They should have access to excellent subject matter experts who can help them become the best and brightest in the business,” he said. “That’s why I teach at TMCC. I choose to invest in these students, and in the community, I call home. This will help them to compete and build comprehensive emergency management programs across the country. I believe in what we do at TMCC and, especially, in our students.”  

For more information about TMCC’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program, contact the department at 775-336-4270.