Homeland Security & Emergency Management Studies: Where Are the HBCUs?

The following essay is authored by Goulda A. Downer, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Downer is a graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Howard University.

The pipeline of new professionals in the field of homeland security (HS) and emergency management (EM) is developing without the inclusion of racially and ethnically diverse students; despite the fact that many of the latter come from communities most vulnerable to manmade and natural disasters and threats. This need not be so! Progress in strengthening a diversified HS and EM workforce requires historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to collaborate around our very survival – our shared interests not-withstanding. This is primarily aimed at training and providing the next generation of credentialed, qualified HBCU graduates in HS and EM.

HBCUs cannot afford to be passive while other institutions make their mark in the field of HS and EM and prepare their graduates for plum positions in this growing career option. The field of HS and EM is relatively new, with the first degree granted a scant 24 years ago. However, while other institutions are updating their curricula, diversifying their degree options, and pioneering new developments in this emerging field, HBCUs are playing a losing game of catch up at best. We are missing the opportunity to be at the table when issues of national certification and accreditation in the field are being decided and our absence reflects poorly on us as stewards of the communities we serve and places them at peril.

Without the input of HBCUs, we will be relegated to the role of silent witnesses to the implementation of programs that do not take into account the sensibilities of our communities; programs that are culturally inappropriate. The opportunity gap begs to be filled by our HBCUs. This can only be done if our institutions’ leaders make this a priority now! A short history of the field that illustrates the lightning speed with which it has evolved and underscores the need for a rapid and effective HBCU response is presented next.

On September 11, 2001 (referred to as 9/11) a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks against the United States occurred. These events gave rise to the field of homeland security. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was created in 1979, is tasked with protecting and serving the American people. FEMA coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters. That is so whether the disaster is natural or man-made and includes acts of terror.

FEMA’s Emergency Management Higher Education Program was created in 1994 at the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Following FEMA’s response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, EMI tendered its educational mission to institutions of higher education. This encompasses working with colleges and universities to cultivate a higher level of commitment to hazards, disasters, and emergency management.

As a result of 9/11, in 2003, FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The primary mission of the 2002 Homeland Security Act is to (a) prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, (b) reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism, (c) minimize damage, and (d) assist in the recovery from terrorist attacks that occur in the United States. FEMA’s Office of National Preparedness was given the responsibility for ensuring that the nation’s first responders are trained and equipped to deal with disasters. This includes actively directing its “all-hazards” approach to disasters towards homeland security issues.

At the time the Higher Education Program was created, there was only one program in the U.S. that offered a bachelor’s degree in EM. There were three collegiate certificate programs. Of these, two were awarded for non-academic credit. The field has grown exponentially over the last 20 years.

Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 is arguably the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history. It identified glaring gaps in the emergency management process. As a result, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act was signed into law. The call for a workforce to address urgent and emerging needs surfaced. Filling those roles were primarily retired police officers and fire chiefs; most of whom were older White men. They viewed this as a second or third career choice. Higher education was seldom involved in discussions aimed at strengthening this workforce. More glaringly, the minority serving institutions which include HBCUs were marginalized.

In response to this emerging workforce need – and more specifically a culturally competent diversified workforce – in 2008, EMI, in collaboration with the White House Initiative on HBCUs established an outreach program for minority serving institutions of higher education. This initiative was designed to create a more diverse EM and HS workforce that reflects the communities that are often most impacted by disasters and threats.

As of 2015, there were 4,583 higher education institutions across the United States. Only nine of these institutions offer programs in emergency management at the doctoral level; 45 at the masters level; 115 at the bachelor of science level; and 56 at the associate’s level. There are also 72 graduate certificate programs, and 84 stand-alone certificate programs or courses. There are a total of seven programs in homeland security at the doctoral level; 51 at the master’s level; 105 at the bachelor of science level; and 27 at the associate’s level. There are also 68 graduate certificate programs, and 45 stand-alone certificate programs or courses.

Based on data reported to FEMA in 2018, only 10 HBCUs offer educational programs in EM
and HS. They are: Elizabeth City State University, Florida A&M University, Florida Memorial University, Jackson State University, North Carolina Central University, Savannah State University, Texas Southern University, Tennessee State University, the University of the District of Columbia, and Voorhees College. Of these, two offer degrees at the master’s level; six at the bachelor’s level; and two provide stand-alone courses. No HBCU has a doctoral level program in either EM or HS. However, Texas Southern University in Houston is awaiting approval to implement a doctoral level program.

Despite ongoing recruitment efforts, EMI’s data suggest that the 105 HBCUs have minimal interest in the development of the diverse workforce needed to create disaster-resilient communities. These focused training opportunities are fully funded by EMI. They are an excellent resource to develop this pipeline of professionals.

Why should this matter you ask? Natural disasters are expected to cost the U.S. trillions of dollars in the next decade. This presents both a financial and national security dilemma. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that during 2017, the U.S. experienced historic weather and climate disasters. In fact, there were 16 separate billion-dollar disasters in 2017.

Hurricanes Katrina and Irma are but two examples that illustrate vividly that communities of color are often the most impacted by disasters. It is well documented that the vast majority of the HBCUs are found in southern states. They are located in poor-resourced communities that are prone to intense flooding, hurricanes, drought and other natural disasters. They are typically situated close to railway tracks, municipal sewer systems, and other less than desirable locations. This unequal environmental burden is one contributor to the overall health disparities these communities suffer.

As stronger and more destructive storms become the new normal, we must focus on preparing “whole communities” long before a catastrophic event occurs. A well-trained, culturally diverse, workforce, representing the breadth of racial and ethnic diversity, is needed to plan for, then deal with disasters and provide assistance after they occur. However, in their seminal research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, J.W. Kunstman and E.A. Platt found that, “as the severity of an emergency increased, White responders offered more and faster help to White victims than Black victims.” One can easily argue that stress may contribute to this type of bias and that this should be mitigated at the agency level with more cultural sensitivity training, and monitoring. However, a more effective response that also promotes ethnic and racial parity in the field of HS and EM is to increase the number of HBCU students trained in the field. The HS and EM workforce for the 21st century must include the breadth of ethnic and racial minorities that call the United States home. Consequently, HBCUs should seek to include Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islanders, and Native American student in the pipeline. This would be a strategically sound move.

Currently, few HBCU students are aware of this emerging, and very in-demand field, and those who are aware have a very limited choice of HBCUs from which to matriculate. HBCUs should work collaboratively to identify gaps in the environmental plight facing our communities. Solutions should be developed to address them. Collectively, the goal should be to educate the next generation of HBCU leaders about the field of HS and EM. This would allow them to develop solutions for a world in which they can thrive.

There is no room for complacency. The field of EM and HS is taking flight, breaking new ground, and establishing service models and operational policies that have already reverberated through communities of color, often to their detriment. HBCUs’ constant state of austere financial crisis notwithstanding, this glaring opportunity commands the attention of insightful leaders; leaders who seek to forge a path to the future and are immersed in the work of guiding institutions of higher education.

The goal must be to provide these leaders with the knowledge, skills and confidence to take their transformative place in safeguarding and protecting our communities and by extension, our nation, and indeed our world!

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  1. As a retired fire service professional I would encourage Dr. Downer to continue to raise the question of why aren’t we blacks more involved in this extremely important field. Our people as she stated are harmed most by these tragedies. I will do my part to assist in spreading the word. God bless Dr. Downer for having the courage to spreak about this issue…Dave Washington

  2. We have a choice be on our way by intellectually and scientifically or be in our own way and that of others ! The bell has rung in signaling the task before us preparation is the key !
    P.S. GOD BLESS !

  3. As a recent Federal Gov’t (IRS) retiree who was datailed to FEMA centers in New York during hurricane Katrina, I can attest to the fact that I saw/met few minority professionals in the fields of EM and/or HS. I applaud Dr. Downer’s excellent insightful article and pray that it will inspire other HBCU’s to “get with the program”. I am an Alumnus of an HBCU as well.

  4. Though I am not an HBCU graduate, I am a African American male that holds a B.S. in Business Administration from Gardner-Webb University and a B.S. in Emergency Management from Western Carolina University. Even with 35 yrs of experience as a paid and volunteer EMS worker, I have found it hard to find a job in the Emergency Management field.My city had a Black EM Director who wouldn’t even give me the opportunity to volunteer in his office. It goes back to most EM Directors don’t have college degrees and are reluctant to bring somebody in with a degree, especially EM Directors of color. We are sometimes are our own worst enemies, so to combat this it would help if HBCU EM degree programs developed a network of agencies these students could intern at whether paid or not.

  5. Fayetteville State University(FSU) has a nationally ranked, Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) approved Fire and Emergency Services Administration online bachelor’s degree completion program. We also have a Center for Defense and Homeland Security.

  6. I’m a African American male and Dr. Downer this is a wonderful article. I’ve been interested in Emergency Management and Homeland Security since joining the army. It’s been 10 years now so decided to pursue that degree. Currently pursuing my A. A. S Fire Science then will complete my B. S Fire Science & Emergency Management after that pursuing my M. S Emergency Management & Homeland Security.
    Working hurricanes in the Army we see the impact first hand. Minority communities are hit hard and take forever to recover if they do at all. Dr. Downer has turned the lights on, and handed the keys out to the court, however let’s see if the teams show up to play. I hope the HBCU see the importance and start the initiative. Implementing these programs at HBCU will pave way for more diversity in the EM and HS fields.

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