When disasters strike, Americans look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help. But the magnitude of natural disasters and the need for rapid and effective responses, as well as robust planning, training, and exercises, has grown, causing state, tribal, and local governments—as well as corporations and nonprofits—to make their own plans for getting through unforeseen circumstances: floods, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and more.
That means job opportunities for people with the right skills, says Kay Goss, CEM®, an internationally recognized expert in emergency management and CEO of GC Barnes Group, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Goss got her start in emergency management while serving in state government in Arkansas in the 1980s and later followed her boss, Bill Clinton, then governor, to Washington to serve as Associate FEMA Director in charge of National Preparedness.
The experience made her particularly passionate about educating leaders who can step into such dire situations and bring relief, while building resilience. To that end, she has encouraged college and universities to develop emergency management degree programs by launching the FEMA Emergency Management Higher Education Program in 1994.
Recently, Goss answered a few questions about her background in the field and her passion for emergency-management education.
Q. What skills are essential to emergency management?
A. Emergency management is about leadership. Managers have to be flexible, progressive, creative, collaborative, and risk-driven. That’s particularly challenging because they must coordinate and collaborate with a vast array of individuals, governments, and organizations.
Q. How do you see emergency management expanding in the next few years that might provide job opportunities?
A. Emergency management has grown exponentially during the 33 years I have been working in the field. Almost all governmental entities now have an emergency manager. The future will see many more businesses and nonprofits hiring them as well. New areas of activity will extend far beyond the traditional natural- and human-induced events, to counterterrorism, spacecraft recovery, and cybersecurity.
Q. What or who inspired you to work in emergency management?
A. My father, Kirby Collett, was quite active in our community (chair of school board, Sunday school superintendent, election judge, elected county agricultural leader in conservation) and he shared his activities, issues, and advice by taking me to his meetings. My mother, Susan Sutton Collett, a special-duty nurse, was well organized and a careful planner, always helping people.
I’ve also had several significant mentors and opportunities.
- The first was my major professor, advisor, and first mentor, Dr. Henry M. Alexander, Chair of the University of Arkansas Political Science/Public Administration Department.
- During my time as an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., I became friends with the powerful member of Congress, Wilbur D. Mills, legendary Chair of the U.S. Representatives’ Committee on Ways and Means, who taught me Congressional history, procedures, and culture, as well as Arkansas politics.
- Of course, Bill Clinton, as governor and as president, gave me the almost unlimited opportunity to put my academic and practical experience to work for the people of my state, then the nation and the world, focusing my public service on emergency management, first at the state and local level, and eventually on the national and international levels.
- My amazing daughter, Susan Goss, inspires me on a daily basis to be the best I can be.
Q. What moments in your career have benefited communities and people in a way that was personally rewarding?
A. Every day is rewarding in some way. I’m particularly proud of launching the FEMA Emergency Management Higher Education Program, when there were only a couple of degree programs in emergency management. Now there are almost 300 such programs nationwide, with several more internationally. I also helped develop the emergency management standards process, which eventually culminated in the Emergency Management Accreditation Program.
In addition, I established a collaborative working arrangement with emergency managers in 43 countries, and opened the doors of FEMA a little more widely to international visitors and partners. The number of foreign visitors grew from 400 during my first year, increasing by about 100 a year. During my last year there, my staff and I welcomed and briefed 1,000 highly placed dignitaries from around the world.
Q. Why is education important in emergency management?
A. People can learn by doing. However, they learn more and faster if they have an educational foundation to serve as an organizing infrastructure in their thinking process. Emergency-management education, as in all disciplines, teaches students how to think, calculate decisions, and have the confidence to take actions, after considering a wide array of options.
The 9/11 report indicated that America’s greatest emergency preparedness weakness was our lack of imagination. Education enhances our imaginations.
Q. What part of your education prepared you most for what you’re doing now?
A. I decided that I wanted to be in public service when I was 8 years old. I selected every course throughout the rest of my elementary, secondary, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral studies to prepare me with the decision-making skills and the knowledge base to make government work for people. I have never had a single second of doubt about what I would do. I love it so much that I will never retire.
Capella University offers the following emergency management degree and certificate programs:
- Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
- Master of Science in Emergency Management
- PhD in Emergency Management
- Doctor of Emergency Management