The Role of Public Health in Emergency Management

When a natural disaster strikes or a contagious disease spreads, swift and coordinated responses are required to restore order along with vital services, utilities and infrastructure. This makes emergency management professionals a vital component to any comprehensive public health system.

Public health professionals in emergency management respond to major disasters as to protect residents from disease outbreaks and other hazards that result from contaminated food and water, chemical releases, insect-borne diseases, and unmet medical needs. These experts and specialists often collaborate with partner organizations at the municipal, state and federal level to ensure that emergency plans are current, in force, and properly implemented.

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The focus of emergency management in public health involves:

  • Assisting communities in recovery
  • Preventing epidemics
  • Preventing injury
  • Preventing the spread of disease
  • Promoting and encouraging healthy behaviors
  • Protecting against environmental hazards
  • Responding to disasters

An emergency is recognized as any unplanned event that could cause death or significant injury to the public. It may also be recognized as anything that can disrupt operations or cause physical or environmental damage. Therefore, emergencies that are addressed by emergency management professionals in public health include:

  • Hazardous materials incidences
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Winter storms
  • Earthquakes
  • Civil disturbances
  • Radiological accidents
  • Communications failures
  • Explosions
  • Terrorism

It is the responsibility of emergency management professionals in public health to prepare for, mitigate, respond to, and recovery from an emergency. The dynamic process of emergency management involves planning, training, drills, and coordinated activities.

Public Health Careers in Emergency Management

Emergency management, which takes place at the local, state, national, and international levels, involves widespread, coordinated efforts between government agencies, clinical professionals, public health officials, and environmentalists. It is the responsibility of all these professionals (and many more) to respond to emergency situations and infectious disease outbreaks as to ensure that populations remain protected.

Some of the most widely recognized emergency management jobs in public health include:

Emergency Management Directors

Emergency management directors are responsible for overseeing the planning process involved with reducing health risks during emergency situations, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and disease outbreaks.

Emergency management directors plan for both acute and long-term responses to immediate health threats and issues. During an emergency situation, emergency management directors analyze data and adapt their emergency responses to protect populations against further risk. They also lead the coordination of fire and law enforcement officials, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

Their job duties also include implementing training programs in emergency response procedures for employees of community organizations and law enforcement agencies and reducing panic among the populations they serve through exceptional communication strategies.

Emergency Response Specialists

Emergency response specialists are frontline experts who are called upon to respond to emergencies that pose a risk to populations and natural resources through the implementation of streamlined and efficient plans and procedures. Their hands-on work often includes:

  • Assessing radiological leak, disease epidemics, and other major disasters
  • Establishing temporary infrastructures that address the impacts of disaster, such as human health, public safety, and destroyed resources
  • Collaborating with other agencies/partners to create and implement a streamlined disaster mitigation strategy
  • Ensuring emergency evacuation routes are set up as to provide safe routes for escape
  • Coordinating the delivery of food, water, and medical supplies
  • Helping communities apply for federal funds

Emergency response specialists are also often responsible for the coordination of planning activities, which includes providing disaster preparedness training and preparing emergency plans and procedures.

Disease Preparedness Researchers

Disease preparedness researchers are lab professionals who are responsible for forecasting health-related emergencies, such as disease outbreaks and vaccine resistance. These emergency management professionals generally work for government agency laboratories and academic institutions.

Some of the major responsibilities of disease preparedness researchers including analyzing and testing strains of infectious diseases, identifying disease transmission, and working alongside government agencies to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Other job duties of these public health professionals include:

  • Collecting environmental data regarding trends that may pose threats
  • Using demographic data to determine community needs in the event of a disease outbreak
  • Evaluating current emergency plans and resources
  • Developing and overseeing valid protocols for community care in the event of an emergency
  • Educating personnel and other partners about safety strategies in the event of an emergency

Bioterrorism Researchers

Bioterrorism researchers research diseases, toxins, and biological substances that are used by terrorists. These laboratory professionals are trained in scientific fields, such as chemistry or biology. They use their knowledge and skills to conduct research related to bioterrorism and the fields of study within it.

It is also typical for bioterrorism researches to examine the long-term psychological impact of bioterrorism and create guidelines to improve individual preparedness for chemical, radiological, nuclear, or biological attacks.

Some of the job responsibilities of bioterrorism researchers include:

  • Gathering data and analyzing it to uncover bioterrorism risks
  • Identifying ways to enhance and improve public safety
  • Working alongside policymakers to help implement guidelines as to reduce the risk of bioterrorist tasks
  • Developing strategies for community response in the event of a bioterrorist attack


Becoming a Public Health Emergency Management Professional: Education and Degree Requirements

Many times, entry-level jobs in emergency management can be obtained with a bachelor’s degree. Typical areas of study include fire science, emergency management, and public administration.

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Researchers and specialists in emergency management are often required to specialize their education in areas such as vaccine research, clinical treatment, public policy administration, or bioterrorism through a master’s—and even doctoral—degree in a related degree, as these roles often place an emphasis on lab research and scientific expertise.

One of the most widely recognized graduate degrees for professionals in emergency management in the public health sector is the Master of Public Health (MPH). An MPH in Emergency Management, also commonly called Healthcare Emergency Management, Disaster Management, and Emergency Preparedness, is designed to educate students in the development, execution, and evaluation of disasters as they relate to public health.

In addition to acquiring knowledge in the public health implications of disasters and disaster response, these programs prepare students on how to best work within the management structure and operational models that are unique to disasters.

The core curriculum of an MPH in Emergency Management reflects the competencies of emergency preparedness leadership, communication, practice improvement, and information management:

  • Principles of Occupational Health
  • Fundamentals of Project Management
  • Health Risk Assessment
  • Principles of Safety
  • Radiological Health
  • Principles of Industrial Hygiene
  • History and Organization of Health Services
  • Current issues in Industrial Hygiene and Safety

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