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Bridging Generations in Emergency Management

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By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Becoming an emergency management professional is not what it used to be. Not long ago, responsibilities to plan and prepare a community for disaster often fell to civil defense directors as part of their other-duties-as-assigned job descriptions. “Then we saw a generation of retired firefighters or police officers who moved from public safety to emergency management roles,” said George Navarini, who has been recently named as the director of emergency management of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the Archdiocese of Miami.

Now more people are choosing emergency management as their career of first choice. Many of these professionals are earning formal degrees in Emergency and Disaster Management (EDM), which aids in the professionalization of the field.

However, there remains a stark divide between these generations, and it is uncommon for emergency management professionals to have both an EDM degree and emergency operations experience. Many current emergency managers have hands-on experience, but lack an EDM-specific academic background. New or aspiring emergency managers have an EDM education, but not much experience. Navarini has a plan to bring these two groups together so they can learn from one another.

AMU Emergency & Disaster Management student George Navarini
AMU Emergency & Disaster Management student George Navarini

On November 18, during the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) annual conference in Las Vegas, Navarini will be sworn in as the IAEM-USA Student Region President.

As president, he will advocate for an internship program that would pair IAEM student members with experienced emergency managers. “It is not just simply networking. We need to create an opportunity for student members to intern at emergency management organizations in the public and private sectors,” he said. “When you think about how many emergency management offices are one- or two-people operations, these organizations are longing for someone to help them. It’s a perfect match to bring in a student who needs to gain that valuable experience,” he said.

Navarini knows first-hand the value of education, especially when it’s coupled with experience. He has had a nearly 40-year career as a volunteer responder and trainer with both the U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard Auxiliaries, and been involved in countless national and international responses from Hurricane David in 1979 to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Despite his extensive background, he is currently working towards a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University (AMU).

Going to school has brought new perspectives to his career, he said. “If you’re involved in emergency management at the responder level, you see one end of the picture—you see a lot of things clearly, but much more remains black and white. You usually understand the how, but not always the why,” said Navarini, who is also the former president of AMU’s IAEM student council and chartering president of the university’s new Order of the Sword and Shield Honor Society Chapter. “As an AMU student, emergency and disaster management courses give you a much more in-depth understanding of concepts that brings the color and depth to the totality of the emergency management continuum.”

And thanks to technology, it’s entirely possible for Navarini to advocate for an internship program that connects students and emergency managers in geographically different parts of the country. From a distance, students can help emergency managers create comprehensive management plans, develop mitigation plans, or assist with a variety of everyday projects, which may also apply to parts of their academic requirements.

While technology may be the key to bringing these groups of emergency managers together, technology is also an aspect of emergency management that concerns Navarini the most. “One thing I’m concerned about as we move into this next generation of emergency managers is an over-dependency on high technology,” he said. “Technology is awesome. It empowers us and it is a force multiplier on so many levels, but we cannot allow our enthusiasm in embracing technology to make us vulnerable because we lack basic knowledge of how to operate without it.”

Navarini experienced this reliance on technology during a recent emergency management drill. “Participants couldn’t get the web-enabled emergency operations center running, and the section chief wanted to call off the exercise,” he said. As one of the evaluators for the drill, Navarini refused to allow them to cancel because of a technology failure. “It was extraordinarily scary to see individuals so enamored with technology that they felt like they couldn’t operate without it,” he said.

Emergency managers need training to plan properly and field experience to handle the variables that inevitably arise. Navarini’s efforts will create opportunities for students new in the field to learn from those with decades of experience.

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