African American Advancement in Emergency Management Fields Saves Lives, Leads to Social Change

Although disasters disproportionately impact African Americans, according to research, better representation in the emergency management industry could support building resilience and preparedness within these communities – and lead to so much more.

Yet, fewer than 12% of emergency management specialists are Black or African American, data shows. In fact, that same data reports that more than half of the industry is made up of white men ages 40 and older.

With disasters on the rise, experts say laying the groundwork for more African Americans to enter emergency management not only saves lives; it also could have sweeping effects that reverse centuries-old discriminatory practices and lead to more equitable disaster response policies. Furthermore, progress could be exponential when black professionals serve in leadership and decision-making positions in the field and share their talent with the next generation of emergency managers through mentorship and training.

In celebration of Black History Month, Communications Specialist Erika Wells spoke with Jerome Hatfield, IEM’s Senior Advisor for Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Hatfield is a former FEMA Executive and Presidential Appointee who has over 30 years of experience in homeland security, emergency management, and law enforcement.

Wells: What led you to this line of work?

Hatfield: I was a law enforcement officer in New Jersey about 27 years. Although I enjoyed the line of work, I also took note of a lot of the collaborative activity in the state police. They were networking with localities and counties in collaboration and coordination of events that might have adverse impacts in their communities.

I took a few courses at Rutgers University, and I became intrigued with the notion that the public safety arena would embrace this profession called emergency management.

As I took classes, I discovered more about emergency management’s capabilities and impact on communities. It was a field I wanted to learn more about and certainly something that I wanted to be a part of.

Wells: Why is it important to have diversity in the industry?

Hatfield: Emergency Management incorporates whole of community, but it’s not just from a response perspective or the development of capabilities. Whole of community also envelops cultures, races, creeds, genders, and so forth. It’s also diversity of thought.

When I came into emergency management, I was the only person of color who operated at the state level in the profession. As we did things that represented a good faith interest within our communities, in some cases the understanding of the risks and threats within were not represented at the table because it wasn’t seated with the local interest of members within those communities.

Diversity of thought is really important for capturing as much information as possible to put together this umbrella of protection that supports the interests of communities throughout the nation.

Wells:  What progress had been made with efforts to bring more African American representation in emergency management?

Hatfield: There are certainly more African Americans in the profession today than there was 25 years ago, and there has been progress. However, it’s not the type of progress that allows us to believe that we are making great strides moving forward.

I do see more people of color and also a closure with the gender gap. However, we remain woefully inadequate in representation with African Americans or minorities, in general, in the field of emergency management. Some of that has to do with a lack of understanding of what the profession represents or an inability to create a causeway that gives individuals the opportunity to learn about the profession.

Wells:  What can be done to make more progress?

Hatfield: Training and education are two components that allow for better and more mainstream understanding of what emergency management is and how it supports others.

Instead of operating in an isolated state, there should be a much greater awareness of the profession, especially at an early age. Only this way, will emergency management become a lifelong opportunity and a profession in lieu of finding out about it mid-career or even later in life. There were opportunities that existed that I would have loved to be a part of if I had learned of the field earlier in my career.

Wells:  What are some challenges that African Americans face in entering or staying in the industry?

Hatfield: There’s a lack of representation that demonstrates career tracks in this profession. This does not afford individuals the opportunity to do what interests them.

The average person does not know or fully understand the capabilities of emergency management, what the profession consists of, or in some cases even the knowledge that it exists. Traditionally, it is conceptualized in ways that only allow them to visualize the community support when an incident happens.

Emergency management is behind the scenes and much more strategic.

Wells: What would you say to encourage particularly African Americans who are considering joining emergency management?

Hatfield: The profession offers so many different opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist in a single traditional discipline. I encourage professionals – at all career stages – to expand their network to better understand what type of support is out there and what could be attained in different ways to learn about emergency management as a field.

With African Americans, the profession creates a better understanding of what law enforcement, fire, public health, and many other disciplines do. You don’t have to focus on a single discipline, rather the umbrella of multiple disciplines representing emergency management.

Take an independent study course or look at formal education. If it draws greater interest, then you can start preparing for opportunities at virtually any level of government. Plant the seed that gives you the ability to become a part of probably one of the most powerful networks in this country.