Disasters by Discipline 1 : necessary dialogue for emergency management education

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Disasters by Discipline1:
necessary dialogue for emergency management education

Brenda D. Phillips, Ph.D.

Professor of Emergency Management

Jacksonville State University



A presentation made at the Workshop “Creating Educational Opportunities for the Hazards Manager of the 21st Century.” Denver, Colorado, October 22, 2003. I extend my appreciation to Deborah Thomas and Dave Neal for their suggestions and guidance but retain responsibility for any comments and conclusions.


At the July 2003 Boulder Natural Hazards Workshop, Dennis Mileti declared that since people talked about emergency management (EM) as a discipline, “therefore it is.” Though he was not the first to so-state (ICMA 1991; Haddow and Bullock 2003), he did so in a timely manner as the number of EM programs continues to grow. The purpose of my presentation is to continue the debate sparked in that moment and to provoke deliberation over related questions.

Such disciplinary designations are not so easily conferred. We still debate whether emergency management meets criteria as a profession—no doubt our debate on disciplinary status has just begun. But what a potential watershed moment nonetheless! As a veteran of the debates over women’s studies, I ask: is emergency management a discipline? Or a multidisciplinary endeavor? Or a truly interdisciplinary field, integrated into something greater than the sum of its parts? Or perhaps a combination, that these are not mutually exclusive? Or how about this one: is there an emergency management canon? These questions will no doubt engage us for years to come. Position papers will be written, perspectives challenged, debates entered in curriculum committees, turf battles waged in graduate councils. I can already hear the debate being reduced to whose definition of discipline should be used.
We need to pause and examine our past, while contemplating our future. We can draw lessons from other fields like women’s studies, criminal justice, nursing, social work or public administration. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, for example, identified four development phases in women’s studies (cited in Rosenfelt 1994, p. 34-35):

  1. independent women’s studies programs develop;

  2. women’s studies moves into the “mainstream” driven by curriculum transformation projects;

  3. “difficult dialogues” erupt around key questions;

  4. women’s studies is infused by new ideas, directions (internationalization, linked to new disciplines, moves into graduate and professional education).

I have deliberately placed my presentation within the third phase, though our individual programs may actually be in varying phases. I see us beginning to wrestle with the dialogues that must occur before our programs more fully flourish, broaden, and grow.

My presentation today will identify critical areas for debate, drawn from my experiences in leading, facilitating, and participating in developing new programs in women’s studies and emergency management. As new academic areas, these two areas have more in common than one might think: both are breaking new ground in new ways, both face similar questions of content, terminology, student markets and outcomes, and faculty roles—not to mention questions of what we should teach or how we should teach it.
In this presentation, I question what it means to be/become/establish a new discipline/field of study/area through several topics traditionally associated with such a “disciplinary” designation. I include these topics as representative of areas and issues commonly found within disciplines; in addition, these areas reflect core issues often found in accreditation.

  • Naming the field:

    • What is the right term/phrase to call this discipline/field of study/area?

  • Defining the field:

    • How is emergency management defined?

  • Concepts:

    • What are the key concepts that have driven the field?

    • How have the key concepts (assuming they exist) been defined?

    • Is there an implicit core curriculum?

    • Is this the core curriculum that we want and need and will it effectively serve all potential student markets as well as employer needs?

  • Evolution of Emergency Management:

    • What is the history of the field?

    • What are the implications of this history?

    • What more can/should we add?

  • Theory:

    • What are the models, perspectives, paradigms, theories and philosophies that influence this field?

    • What are their life span, influence, and value?

    • How are they used/not used in classrooms and/or in practice?

  • Methods:

    • What/which methods should be taught to students in this field?

    • Traditional, applied? Statistical? Evaluative? Disaster-specific?

  • Practice:

    • What should be the role(s) and relationship(s) between academia and industry/practice?

    • How can academia make better use of existing resources, particularly organizations, agencies and institutions?

    • Where do we stand on the question of accreditation of EM programs?

  • Student Outcomes Assessment:

    • What types of recruitment and retention strategies work most effectively with EM students?

    • What are the demographic backgrounds of students?

    • Which students are most/least likely to persist through degree completion?

    • What are students doing with their degrees and certificates?

    • What do employers think of EM graduates?

  • Faculty Roles

    • What are traditional faculty roles?

    • Do those roles apply to emergency management?

    • What frameworks might be used to evaluate faculty performance?

    • How can we grow professional development opportunities for educators?

    • Is it time to form a National Council of Emergency Management Educators?

Though the dialogue looms ahead for many of us-some of us eager, others dreading the battles to come—into the fray we must go. Because this is how we claim space in the academy and the time is at hand. In the words of Captain Jean Luc Picard, who dared to go where others had not gone before, “engage!”

What do we call this field?
Emergency Management (EM)? Hazards Management? Disaster Management? Risk management? Crisis management? In a nod to this debate, Wayne Blanchard (2003) used three simultaneously during a recent presentation at the annual Natural Hazards Workshop. In its new graduate degree program, Jacksonville State University used both disaster and emergency in course titles.
As a survivor of similar debates in women’s/gender/feminist studies, I realize that we will probably not answer this question in our lifetimes, and that events, policies, programs and people will challenge and change the debate—as well it should. However, such is the development path for most academic degree programs.
Those of us who have waded through What is a Disaster by E.L. Quarantelli understand what I am suggesting. What are the implications of terminology choices for the scope of what is taught? For the lines that bound the work of the graduate designated with a certain degree title? For the human resource manager searching for qualified employees? For the research faculty members will conduct? Is the concern a serious conceptual debate with implications that could bound or expand areas of inquiry and study? Or does such a debate simply reflect long-standing divisions and encampments within the academic and researcher communities?
To start, let’s take a look at where we are by examining key words used in program titles, degrees, certificates and courses.
Table 1. U.S. colleges and universities with the words hazard, disaster, risk, crisis or emergency in the undergraduate program or degree title2.


key word

Arizona State University-East


Arkansas Tech University


Central Missouri University

Crisis, Disaster

Jacksonville State University


North Dakota State University


Thomas Edison State College

Emergency, Disaster

University of Akron


University of North Texas


University of Richmond


Western Carolina University


Key word count clearly reveals that the vast majority has used the concept “emergency” to label their programs.

Table 2. U.S. colleges and universities with the words hazard, disaster, risk, crisis or emergency in courses or programs at the graduate level3 (excludes safety, fire, environmental unless coupled with key words).


Key Word

Touro University International

Emergency, disaster

University of South Dakota

Disaster (psychology)

University of South Florida

Disaster management

University of Richmond

Disaster sciences

Anna Maria College

Emergency planning and response

Arizona State University East

Emergency management

Benedictine University

Disaster management

Cal State Long Beach

Emergency services

Florida Atlantic University

Crisis and emergency management

Florida State University

Emergency management

George Washington University

Crisis, emergency, risk management

Jacksonville State University

Emergency management

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Emergency management

Louisiana State University

Disaster science and management

Lynn University

Emergency planning

Oklahoma State University

Fire/Emergency Management

Texas A&M University

Environmental hazard management

University of Florida

Fire/Emergency Services

University of North Texas

Emergency administration/planning

At the graduate level, these key words are used:

  • Emergency = 13

  • Disaster = 6

  • Crisis = 2

  • Hazard = 1

  • Risk = 1

At the graduate level, a broader array of terms can be seen. The origins of this diversity should be examined but a cursory review suggests connections to pre-established programs, placement within a particular college, or the academic backgrounds of the faculty. Any future research should include an historical examination of how these programs emerged, why/how the designations were selected, and what those terms currently mean to the faculty (and perhaps to the students). And, just as the terms women’s/gender/feminist studies were and continue to be debated, our discussion has undoubtedly just begun. Academics know that they are telegraphing messages with each term. Each term carries baggage, each offers potential; clearly the debate matters to the academic, but does it matter to the employer seeking a candidate with particular knowledge, skills, and abilities?

Another view into this question comes from the international community. Let’s take a look first at Canadian course titles and then at program titles.
Table 3. A selective look at Canadian universities with the words hazard, disaster, risk, or emergency in the course title4.


course title

Lakehead University

Geography of Risk and Hazard

U of Manitoba

Geography of Natural Hazards

McMaster University

Natural Disasters

Universite du Quebec a Montreal

Catastrophes Naturelles et risques anthropiques

U of Regina

Natural Hazards

Ryerson U

Facility Siting & Risk Assessment

U of Toronto

Emergency Response Systems Planning

Simon Fraser U

Geography of Natural Hazards

U of Victoria

Disaster Planning

Wilfred Laurier U

Risks and Disasters

Natural Hazards

York U

Risk Assessment in Resource Management

U of Winnipeg

Natural Hazards

The word count in course titles appears as:

  • Hazard = 6

  • Risk = 5

  • Disaster = 3

  • Catastrophe = 1

  • Emergency = 1

Internationally, the term “hazards” and “risk” currently out-number both disaster and emergency. Australian universities use emergency management (Charles Sturt and Southern Cross University). In the United Kingdom, Coventry University emphasizes disaster management while the University of Leicester relies on “risk, crisis and disaster management.” Istanbul Technical University chose emergency management. Other nations certainly do address this question, but problems with translation and cultural nuances prevent further analysis. In terms of content, Geography dominates the courses offered in Canadian universities, followed by sociology, psychology, planning, economics and political science5.

How is emergency management defined?
It is clear that the emerging trend is to use the key word “emergency” in program titles within the U.S., especially at the undergraduate level and to couple that word with the term “management.” However, what exactly do we mean by the term “emergency management”?
Let’s take a few moments to examine definitions in currently-used textbooks or related materials:
FEMA IS-1 Emergency Manager Course: “In its simplest terms, emergency management may be as simple as a homeowner responding to a broken water pipe and a flooded basement.” p. 1-6. Related: “today the emphasis is on the protection of the civilian population and property from the destructive forces of natural and man-made disasters through a comprehensive program of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.” (p. 1-5).
ICMA (1991, p. xvii): “Emergency management is the discipline and profession of applying science, technology, planning, and management to deal with extreme events that can injure or kill large numbers of people, do extensive damage to property, and disrupt community life.”
Waugh (2000, p. 3): “In simplest terms, emergency management is the management of risk so that societies can live with environmental and technical hazards and deal with the disasters that they cause.”
Haddow and Bullock (2003, page 1): “A simple definition is that emergency management is the discipline dealing with risk and risk avoidance.”
Professional associations tend to address what a person show know, thus by implication define the field as well:

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