An Interview with Terry Egan
“What I enjoy the most about being an emergency professional is being able to help others. I get to work with other professionals to determine ways to save lives and protect property and have fun while doing it.”
Terry Egan is a homeland security professional and emergency manager who works for the Emergency Management Division of the Washington Military Department in Tacoma, Washington.
Terry earned a Doctor of Education from Seattle University and a Master of Arts in Public Administration from Central Michigan University. He also holds a Bachelor of Political Science from University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. He has worked for the Washington Military Department for 14 years.
In your own words, what is an emergency manager?
An emergency manager is a professional who responds to disasters and emergencies. This person also develops plans to deal with these natural and man-made events, and coordinates the testing of those plans with exercises and drills. In my position, I develop training courses to teach others how to respond to emergencies and train local response professionals and members of other state agencies on emergency management scenarios and responses.
Emergency managers may be employed by private companies, local government, state government, or by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming an emergency manager,” what would your response be?
I would let the student know that this job is primarily centered around emergency and disaster management. This may seem obvious, but it is important to know that the field changed significantly after September 11, 2001. 9/11 had a huge effect on my job by changing what I do on a daily basis and who I interact with. Prior to 9/11, we worked almost exclusively with other emergency managers, fire departments and law enforcement. Today, the federal government recognizes 18 critical infrastructure sectors, including public health, utilities, and waste-water management, and we work with them all.
What level of education is necessary to become an emergency manager?
A bachelors degree is ideal to become an emergency manager. There are various ways to get the necessary education and training in emergency management. One way is to go to a school that offers an emergency management curriculum, such as Pierce College, which offers a 2-year program.
Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become an emergency manager?
There are no licensing requirements, but there are professional certifications that you can earn. The most common is to become a Certified Emergency Manager, but it is not necessary to have the credential in order get a job. In the government sector, we tend to be more interested in relevant education and experience. However, private companies often prefer or require specific licensing credentials.
Why did you decide to become an emergency manager?
I have always been attracted to this field. I was in the military for 20 years and have worked as a wildland firefighter and a smokejumper for the Forest Service. When I was in the Air Force, I worked on disaster-preparedness projects similar to what I do now. All of my previous jobs dealt in some way with disaster preparedness, and so it was easy to transition to my current position. I love what I do because I meet people who are in a bad spot in their lives and I help make it better for them. I think most of my colleagues are in the profession for similar reasons.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming an emergency manager?
When I first started this job, I thought that my work would always revolve around government organizations, such as fire and police departments, and state and local emergency management. 9/11 changed that completely. My role, and the role of the industry in general, has expanded significantly since then. As I mentioned, I now also work with people in 18 critical infrastructure sectors as well as with private industry.
Another misconception that I had was the degree to which I would be involved in mutual aid. Mutual aid is government-to-government assistance, which can occur at the state or local level. Different networks of states, individual states or cities will send workers to other states to help with emergencies such as hurricanes.
What do you enjoy most and least about being an emergency manager?
What I enjoy the most about being an emergency professional is being able to help others. I get to work with other professionals to determine ways to save lives and protect property and have fun while doing it. I love coming to work in the morning!
I also enjoy the fact that my day is never the same. I stay very busy with a variety of tasks and duties that are continually changing. Since the population of the country is increasing, the number and scope of emergencies are increasing, and as a result, more people are affected.
What I enjoy least about my job are the local and federal budget issues that can affect our work. For example, our operating budgets have been significantly reduced, even though the amount of work we must accomplish has increased.
What is a typical day like for you?
I can’t say what a typical day is like, because I never have one. I have a wide variety of things to do, learn and complete. I am currently working on 8 or 9 different projects. For example, one day I might participate in a state government course about interacting with Native American tribes. Another day, I might meet with building officials about how they can obtain emergency management college credit for courses they are taking. There is a lot of diversity, which is typical for this field.
Right now, I am developing emergency exercises for an earthquake response where my department is teamed with 7 counties and a number of state agencies. We create possible scenarios, design drills, and develop recovery exercises. We also discuss long-term disaster recovery issues.
My job also involves a lot of interpersonal interaction. As a manager, I supervise about 20 employees, so I do not spend much time working alone. Since I am a manager, I have a lot of autonomy, but I also have the responsibility to keep everyone else informed. Other than an hour for lunch, I am constantly working.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
I try to keep a healthy balance between work and personal life. The hours are fairly long, but I have time for myself, and my work stays put when I go home. I manage my time by keeping a list of all of my current projects on a whiteboard. Having this list in front of me helps me to stay focused. I also try to avoid reading e-mail throughout the day, and instead set aside a block of time to go through my e-mails and respond to them. With a busy schedule, time management is essential.
Exercising and social activities help me manage the stress that can come from being an emergency manager. Maintaining a certain level of physical fitness makes the fast pace and physical work of disaster exercises much easier. Releasing stress is important, especially after real emergencies, such as 9/11.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as an emergency manager and what traits would hinder success?
The most successful emergency managers have what I call an operator or Type A personality. An operator is somene who can quickly evaluate a situation, determine what needs to be done, and follow through on the decisions that they make. We may do mostly drills for disasters, but we are preparing for potential realities, and failing to make timely and informed decisions can be fatal.
A trait that would hinder your success in this field would be a lack of passion for what you do. Above all, this is a helping profession. You must be interested in doing the hard work that it takes to help others. Everything we do is centered on avoiding casualties or fatalities in an emergency, but also protecting the environment, preserving property and restoring the economy.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
I probably would not have earned my doctorate degree. A doctorate degree is helpful but not necessary to find a job in this field. I know that it did help me get my current job, but it took several years and was very costly in terms of time, money and personal relationships.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming an emergency manager should pursue?
I highly recommend that students learn more about the profession through volunteer work. You can work as a volunteer firefighter or in the law enforcement reserve, among other things. This will familiarize you with the types of scenarios that an emergency manager must plan for and respond to. My previous training in wildland firefighting and as a smoke jumper for the Forest Service helped prepare me for this field.
I would also recommend enrolling in classes offered by FEMA. This is also a way to demonstrate your interest in the profession to potential employers who are looking at your resume. The courses are free, and many of them are available online.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most valuable for the work you do today?
Unquestionably, the writing courses I took during school have been the most valuable for the work that I do today. Courses that strengthen your verbal and written communication skills, such as public speaking classes or writing classes, will help you significantly in this profession. Emergency managers do a lot of writing when drafting plans and scenarios for exercises, so students should strive to gain clear written communication skills.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming an emergency manager?
I would advise students that there are many paths to becoming an emergency manager. The profession has grown considerably in the past few years, and there are many opportunities available. I spent 20 years in the military, which gave me skills that I have applied to this profession, and that can be just as valid as a bachelors degree.
However, a specialized bachelors degree in emergency management is becoming more and more desirable. I would encourage anyone interested in this profession to get a degree in homeland security and emergency management, because it provides good grounding for the type of work you will do in this field.