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In Their Own Words: Police Chiefs Transition to Emergency Management Leadership

By Leischen Stelter, American Military University, Manassas, Virginia

It is becoming increasingly common for police chiefs and law enforcement officers to take on leadership roles within emergency management. A greater number of police chiefs and those with long law enforcement careers find themselves uniquely qualified to head emergency management programs. However, this is a relatively new phenomenon in public safety.

“Very traditionally, emergency management was actually something relegated to either civil defense departments or handled by the fire service because it had more of a rescue type of component,” said Dennis Alvarez, an Emergency & Disaster Management (EDM) professor at American Military University, who was a deputy sheriff for five years. “There wasn’t really a law enforcement component to it, and we didn’t start seeing that transition until the country started having more terrorist events. I think that’s when law enforcement saw that emergency management was an integral component to managing an incident.”1

While some law enforcement officers choose to take on leadership roles in emergency management, many find themselves thrown into it.

Salt Lake City, Utah

“It was a baptism by fire,” said Cory Lyman, Director of Emergency Management for Salt Lake City, Utah, describing the transition from law enforcement into emergency management.2 Lyman was in law enforcement for 27 years, 21 of them with the Salt Lake City Police Department, along with 6 years as the chief of police in Ketchum, Idaho.

Throughout his law enforcement career, he held a variety of positions that gave him a wide-ranging perspective on the facets of law enforcement and homeland security. He spent years as the team leader in command of the SWAT team and the commander of the bomb squad. He was also heavily involved in the planning process for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which were under extreme scrutiny so soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This involvement gave him experience working with nearly all the disciplines of public safety.

But it was not until he moved to Ketchum to take the role of chief that he got his first taste of emergency management responsibilities. Ketchum is a small city without a director for emergency management, so the responsibilities fell on Lyman.

In 2008, six years into his tenure as chief in Ketchum, Lyman was approached by Salt Lake City officials asking him to consider taking the head position in the newly restructured Department of Emergency Management.

He said no.

But after being persuaded, Lyman decided to take on the role. “It happened more by chance than by design,” he said. “It was never part of my career plan—I did not plan to be in emergency management.”3

Ansonia, Connecticut

Chief Kevin Hale, a 23-year career officer, also did not expect to take on emergency management responsibilities. For the last two years, Hale has held dual roles as the chief of police and the part-time director of emergency management for Ansonia, Connecticut, a city of about 19,000 just west of New Haven. Chief Hale ended up volunteering to take on emergency management responsibilities after the previous director left the position without a direct successor. Chief Hale works closely with the city’s Public Safety Committee to plan and direct emergency response.

After he took on emergency management responsibilities, Hale found himself uniquely qualified for the role. Emergency management requires an immense amount of collaboration among law enforcement, fire services, ambulance service, public works, schools, elected officials, financial agencies, utilities, private businesses, and others.

“In order to coordinate all those entities you have to be organized because [in a crisis] you’re in charge of managing it,” Hale said. “It was really kind of a seamless transition for me to [take on emergency management] because I had been chief for 10 years at that point and I have known many of those folks for a long time.”4

Major hurdles were overcome and lessons learned during the transition to emergency management for both of these law enforcement executives.

Realize Your Weaknesses and Surround Yourself with Subject Matter Experts

To be successful in emergency management leadership, first accept that one will never be an expert in every discipline.

“You have to know that you have a lot to learn,” said Lyman.“You can’t possibly know everything about terrorism or hazmat or floods—no one person could do that.”5

Being thrust into an emergency management role forces one to truly take on a multidisciplinary perspective and learn how to effectively evaluate the resources within the state, county, and city.

To understand who has what, emergency managers must build strong relationships. Do not expect others to come to you. Lyman learned that if he wanted to build relationships, he had to make himself as available as possible.

“There are a lot of conferences and meetings in the county and state and within your FEMA region,” he said. “That’s where you need to meet and greet and exchange business cards, before an event.”6

You also have to respect other’s area of expertise and work with them to find solutions.

“It’s like managing any department: You have to let people do their jobs,” Hale emphasized. “I’m not going to try to micromanage public works or the fire department. You have to take a step back and see the bigger picture. You’re not ignoring the details, but you have to see the bigger picture.”7

Emergency managers also have to be prepared that the process is not going to be fluid and simple.

“It’s not always peaches and cream,” said Hale, who had taken over emergency management responsibilities only a week before Hurricane Irene hit Connecticut in August 2011, causing widespread damage.8 During the aftermath of that devastation, Hurricane Alfred hit in late October and caused large snowfalls and extended blackouts for days—setting new records that had just been broken by Hurricane Irene. It was a rough time to be in emergency management and even more challenging to be new at it.

“People are working 48 hours without sleep, so there are going to be issues, but you have to try to work through things,” recommended Hale.9

Challenges for Law Enforcement Officers Making the Transition

One of the biggest challenges law enforcement officials face when transitioning to careers in emergency management is accepting that their job is never done.

“In law enforcement, you get a lot of closure,” said Lyman. “If you conduct a big case, it comes to a conclusion: It either goes to court and it is resolved, or you’ve done all you can do and the case closes and you move on.”10

But in emergency management your job is never complete. “It’s much more of an incomplete task all the time. You have to learn to accept incremental gains,” he said.11 For example, a tornado is going to cause damage no matter how much planning or mitigation is done—no one can overpower Mother Nature. Emergency managers must accept that there is only so much they can do to prepare their area, ensure coordinated response, and plan for short recovery times.

Moving Away from Response Mode. Another challenge for law enforcement is getting away from the “response” mentality.

“Emergency management does not just involve red lights and yellow tape, it also involves restoration and recovery,” Lyman said. “That’s the biggest part of the job—emergency management is much broader than the initial response.”12

Lance Valcour spent 33 years as a police officer with the Ottawa, Ontario, Police Service, the 15th largest police jurisdiction in North America. He is now the executive director of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG), which focuses on improving communications interoperability in public safety communities. He has seen emergency management from all different perspectives.

“In the police world, when there’s an incident you go to it and then you leave. You’re not there for the cleanup,” said Valcour. “However, in disaster management, the recovery is often the largest piece and it can be extensive—it often takes years to fulfill.”13

Shift in Authority Powers. “In some ways, this shift in authority can be the most challenging for someone coming out of the police community,” said Valcour.14 Many law enforcement officers are accustomed to walking into a situation and taking charge because that is what they are trained to do, that is what they need to do to stay safe and keep others safe. “But in the emergency management community, one of the first things I learned was how important everybody is around the table,” he said.15 Emergency managers need to understand how to coordinate resources and get things done without necessarily having direct control of all those resources. That can be tough.

Those with a law enforcement background must understand that the role of the emergency manager requires more of a project management approach than an authority approach.

“If I’m a captain in law enforcement and I direct a detective to do something, they do it. They work for you,” Lyman said. “But in emergency management, if you need help from the public works department, you have to have a good relationship and you can’t direct them to do anything, you can only ask for their help.”16

Why Emergency Management Is a Natural Fit for Law Enforcement Leaders

“Transitioning to emergency management from any of the three disciplines [police, fire, paramedic] is, in many respects, very easy because it is the same principles of team work and communication and event management and those are all the backgrounds of what tri-service professionals do,” said Valcour.17

Law enforcement officers are especially well equipped for this transition because of their boots-on-the-ground experience. They have the experience of being out on the street and responding to incidents.

“Officers know what it’s like to be in the field and know what they have to work with and what resources are needed. That’s critical in developing an effective emergency management program because you have to have good plans for people working outside the office,” said AMU professor Alvarez.18

As a whole, public safety agencies across the board are shifting to an all-threats, all-hazards response approach. As a result, many more law enforcement agencies are training their officers in emergency response skills including the incident command system (ICS) because it’s important (and often mandated) that they have such skill sets.

Even if law enforcement officers are not interested in a career shift to emergency management responsibilities, they are (and should be) much more involved than they once were traditionally.

“Even if you’re not in emergency management, you have to be a part of the process, and you should have an interest in it because you’re dealing with the safety and security of your community,” said Chief Hale.19

You Are Never Done Learning

Being thrown into emergency management comes with a steep learning curve.

“You have to have a completely open mind,” said Chief Hale. There is no such thing as “this will never happen here,” according to Hale. “Throw that out the window and prepare for everything.” But, of course, you cannot plan for everything. The key, Hale believes, is to never be surprised by anything. “I always have a contingency plan in the back of my mind,” he said.20

When Hale first took over emergency management responsibilities, one of the first hurdles was the communication system. The public safety committee had to make some adjustments to the radio and other devices to ensure that they could communicate with all the different agencies. Since then, his department has participated in two statewide drills, which have successfully tested their communication systems.

“Between those tests and recent storms, I feel pretty confident we can handle most anything,” said Hale, adding, “but at the same time I know how to ask for help.”21

The Role of Education

Lyman and Hale both fell into emergency management. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. First of all, those who volunteer or find themselves in emergency management roles tend to have diverse backgrounds and experience (often in law enforcement, fire services, etc.), which lend themselves to strong collaboration. These strengths are not necessarily formed in the classroom. However, formal academic training can help emergency managers understand the theory; analyze case studies and other research projects on past disasters and subsequent responses; and also become aware of training about government grants, training requirements, legalities, and other information.

“For the police executive who is thinking they would like to make the transition and either change careers or, after retirement, [a solid] education and going to get their degree in emergency management would absolutely make the transition seamless,” said Valcour.22

In Salt Lake City, Lyman does not have an academic background in emergency management either.

“It doesn’t hurt for someone to go and further their education in emergency management,” he said.23 “If I was making this transition 10 years ago, I probably would’ve done it…You just have to decide where you are on your career continuum.”

In EDM classes at AMU, Professor Alvarez said he has seen a spike in students with law enforcement backgrounds taking emergency management courses.

“I would say about 25 percent of my classes have students with some law enforcement background and are either actively involved in civilian law enforcement or are active-duty military police,” he said.24 Professor Alvarez recommends that students take a variety of emergency management classes and not just focus on one aspect of emergency management.

Also, it’s important to remember that emergency management is still an evolving academic discipline. For example, just last year, Professor Alvarez was in the first graduating class of FEMA’s National Emergency Management Academy.

“FEMA has been around for 35 years, that just shows how new this discipline is,” he said. “As we progress and move forward I think we’ll continue seeing a lot of changes to the academic structure in the field.”25

For Those Considering Making a Career Change to Emergency Management

For officers actively seeking a career shift into emergency management, education is becoming more of a requirement. Also, as with many disciplines, having a formal education can give one a competitive advantage in the job search.

“We’re seeing a positive trend—and it will only continue—that there’s the requirement for formal education for emergency management positions. The expectation of formal education is on the rise,” said Giles Hoback, an EDM professor at American Public University (APU).26 Professor Hoback is also a retired lieutenant with the U.S. Coast Guard, and he focused on intelligence, tactical law enforcement, and Department of Homeland Security missions.

Professor Hoback decided after his Coast Guard career to make the leap into emergency management.

“I knew it was something I wanted to do, so I went back to school and got a master’s in emergency and disaster management,” he said. “All my experience was great and it certainly helped me, but having the formal education piece would demonstrate my willingness to commit to doing the job. I wanted to show that I had a good grasp on what I would be expected to do.”27

If you are a law enforcement officer interested in emergency management, you do not have to make the leap all at once. “Start early and start small,” advised Professor Hoback. “There are many free, online resources one can access. Start familiarizing yourself with emergency management operation plans. Talk to local emergency managers and get a feel for their jobs and look for ways to collaborate with them.”28

1Dennis Alvarez, professor, American Military University, phone interview, August 30, 2013.
2Cory Lyman, Director of Emergency Management, Salt Lake City, Utah, phone interview, August 29, 2013.
4Chief of Police Kevin Hale, Ansonia, Connecticut, phone interview, August 29, 2013.
5Lyman, interview.
7Hale, interview.
10Lyman, interview.
13Lance Valcour, executive director, CITIG, phone interview, August 29, 2013.
16Lyman, interview.
17Valcour, interview.
18Alvarez, interview.
19Hale, interview.
22Valcour, interview.
23Lyman, interview.
24Alvarez, interview.
25Ibid. For more information about FEMA’s Emergency Management Professional Program, visit
26Giles Hoback, professor at American Public University, phone interview, August 15, 2013.

Please cite as:

Leischen Stelter, "In Their Own Words: Police Chiefs Transition to Emergency Management Leadership," The Police Chief 80 (November 2013): 28–30.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 11, November 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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