What Is FEMA and What Are FEMA Career Paths?

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FEMA responders meet with community leaders under a tent after a disaster.If natural disasters seem more common today, it’s because they are. The world saw a fivefold increase in weather-related disasters over the past 50 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Due to climate change factors, storms are more intense, frequent, and expensive — the median annual average cost of disasters was $148.4 billion from 2017 to 2021, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate.gov.

With the increased frequency of disasters comes increases in public health emergencies and threats to public safety. Government agencies worldwide provide resources and education to help people affected by disasters. In the United States, the agency responsible for helping keep people safe and secure before, during, and after a disaster is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

This federal agency focuses on emergency and disaster management, which includes preparation and planning for potential events as well as coordinating responses during unfolding disasters. What FEMA is responsible for will take on greater importance as weather and climate disasters continue to rise in the United States. With the growing threat of more disasters in the years and decades to come, individuals with essential disaster response and recovery and emergency management knowledge will be needed to help people and communities prepare, survive and recover.

What Is FEMA?

FEMA is the agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responsible for disaster response and recovery and emergency management. FEMA performs a wide range of activities before, during, and after disasters, including orchestrating federal recovery efforts and managing resources, supplies, and sheltering operations.

FEMA also educates communities about risks through various channels, including alerts, the media, and local emergency response partners. Education includes efforts to enhance risk awareness and preparation before a disaster occurs. FEMA also takes the lessons learned after every disaster to adjust risk plans for future disasters.

History of FEMA

The history of FEMA goes back to the 19th century. In the year following a devastating fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a major seaport and center of commerce at the time, Congress passed the first federal disaster relief legislation in U.S. history in 1803. Fires were commonplace at the time, but Congress stepped in after this event because the sheer size of the destruction threatened the vital commerce of the developing nation. The legislation gave Portsmouth merchants some breathing room for several months by suspending bond payments.

An executive order by then-President Jimmy Carter formally created FEMA in 1979. The Stafford Act of 1988 — legislation that set the stage for today’s federal disaster response and recovery framework — expanded its role. When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, FEMA’s role became much more prominent. The attack drove policy changes focused on reorganizing the federal government to improve disaster response. With the signing of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, FEMA and 21 other organizations were united.

As threats to the nation grew and evolved, so did the agency. Additional legislation that helped expand and strengthen FEMA’s mission included the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, and the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018.

What Does FEMA Do?

The key responsibilities of FEMA range from increasing awareness of risk to providing financial resources for individuals, communities, and businesses impacted by a disaster. Activities that occur in emergency management and recovery and response include the following:

Before a Disaster

Before a disaster, FEMA’s primary aim is to help people understand what’s at risk, providing education and insights into how a disaster can impact their lives and property. An important part of disaster preparedness is to take individual and collective action to help minimize the impact of a disaster, reduce risks and build capabilities essential for resiliency.

During a Disaster

During a disaster, FEMA mobilizes to alert, warn and deliver potentially lifesaving messages. Communications shared with people and communities during a disaster help individuals know where to go, what to do, and how to access essential resources.

FEMA also executes operational and logistical efforts to save and sustain lives, minimize suffering, and protect property in the affected communities. FEMA employees often put themselves in danger in circumstances that are still hazardous to coordinate responses and stabilize communities.

After a Disaster

After a disaster, FEMA helps individuals and communities recover and rebuild. FEMA’s responsible for providing access to resources, such as financial aid or direct services. It also helps solve problems and coordinate with partners to address issues with disaster response and recovery and emergency management.

FEMA also applies insights and shares tools, best practices, and resources to help individuals, communities and businesses withstand challenges in their current and future situations.

FEMA Careers: Which Path to Take?

To fulfill its mission, FEMA has a large workforce, including more than 20,000 emergency managers to coordinate efforts before, during, and after disasters. Some FEMA roles require deployment to disaster sites, but numerous FEMA careers are available that require working behind the scenes.

An individual interested in a FEMA career or looking to explore what it’s like to work for FEMA will want to consider two primary job types: disaster and steady state. Disaster state roles focus on assisting disaster survivors and serving as first responders during emergencies. These employees are often on call to respond to emergencies. Steady-state roles focus on activities during normal operations.

The following are some of the top roles at FEMA, with corresponding salary data from FederalPay.org:

  • Emergency management specialist. In this behind-the-scenes role, individuals focus on reducing the impact of disasters through preparedness training and planning. The median annual salary for this role was $79,965 in 2021.
  • Management and program analysis. In this role, individuals conduct program analysis using qualitative and quantitative methods to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of FEMA operations. The median annual salary for this role was $115,687 in 2021.
  • Supply program management. In this role, individuals help ensure that sites have access to essential supplies and equipment for effective response, recovery, and emergency planning. The median annual salary for this role was $77,000 in 2021.
  • Environmental protection specialist. In this role, individuals are experts in environmental federal regulations, directives, and legal mandates, helping ensure the alignment of projects with environmental planning requirements. The median annual salary for this role was $111,560 in 2021.
  • Logistics management. In this role, individuals coordinate the delivery of resources, ensuring that the correct items, from supplies to equipment, get to the right place at the right time. The median annual salary for this role was $100,437 in 2021.

Prepare for FEMA Careers

Passion for helping others and knowledge of the fundamentals of safety and emergency response is essential for individuals looking for a career in disaster response and emergency management. Eastern Kentucky University’s online Master of Science (MS) in Safety, Security and Emergency Management program can help them acquire essential skills and knowledge of both emerging trends and proven strategies in the industry. Through a combination of education, skills, and passion, individuals can position themselves for FEMA careers in which they’ll serve as experts in helping people and communities prepare for and recover from disastrous events.

Learn more about how Eastern Kentucky University’s online MS in Safety, Security, and Emergency Management program can help you pursue your goals in this exciting field.

Recommended Readings

Safety Professionals: Demand in the U.S.

How to Sustain a Culture of Safety in an Organization

8 Environmental Health and Safety Careers You Should Consider


The Balance, “What Is FEMA?”

Climate.gov, “2021 U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters in Historical Context”

Federal Emergency Management Agency, About Us

Federal Emergency Management Agency, History of FEMA

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Occupations and Career Map

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Position Types and Hiring Paths at FEMA

Federal Emergency Management Agency, We Are FEMA

Federal Register, Federal Emergency Management Agency

FederalPay.org, Emergency Management Specialist – Federal Salaries of 2021

FederalPay.org, Federal Emergency Management Agency Salaries of 2021

Houston Chronicle, “How to Get Employment With FEMA”

Payscale, Average Salary for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Employees

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Response and Recovery

World Meteorological Organization, Weather-Related Disasters Increase Over Past 50 years, Causing More Damage But Fewer Deaths