US News ranks ASU's disaster management program top in nation

Floods, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. An Arizona State University graduate program sending professionals into the teeth of disasters was ranked the top in the nation this week by U.S. News and World Report, ahead of George Mason University, Naval Postgraduate School and Columbia.

And the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security did it just five years after it was created.

“It’s nice to be No. 1,” said Don Siegel, director of the School of Public Affairs, where the center is housed. “It’s an amazing achievement, and we offer a tremendous array of programs in that space.”

The center fuses academics, research and real-world experience to meet disasters and emergencies, respond to them, manage them and recover from them, in both the private and public sectors. It also educates and trains public management professionals.

The No. 1 ranking leads a strong showing of competitive graduate programs around ASU, including several others in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions: Information technology management rose to second, ahead of Georgia Institute of Technology and Syracuse University; and urban policy moved up to fourth, ahead of Harvard, the University of Chicago and UCLA.

Elsewhere around ASU, the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the W. P. Carey School of Business all saw graduate programs with improved rankings. See the full list at U.S. News and World Report's education website.

Managing crises and security is one of the fastest-growing job categories in both public and private sectors, according to Siegel. “There are tremendous job opportunities there,” he said.

Emergency management director is a job category not only in government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but in large plants and facilities, and at private-sector companies like engineering, procurement and construction company Kellogg, Brown & Root.

“We see this as a growing field, and that’s why we offer so many programs,” Siegel said. “This is a growing area in government, but also in industry.”

Brian Gerber, an associate professor at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, directs the program.

“We have a wide range of interesting people who go through the program,” Gerber said. Of three recent grads, one works for the Secret Service, another is the emergency manager for Maricopa County, and the third is the emergency planner for a Middle Eastern country’s national health system, Gerber said.

The college is also ranked third in the country for local government management. Most of ASU’s grad students in the field end up as city managers or assistant city managers.

“We train a lot of city managers,” Siegel said. “A lot of them are engaged in this, so they need to know this. It’s a very important part of their job. Not as much in a city like Phoenix, but in places like Florida, where they have all kinds of hurricanes and floods and have to deal with the response to that. ... We also place people in positions like compliance manager — very high salaries in these fields. ... It’s not just limited to the public sector.”

The vast majority of emergency management students are already working professionals. It’s a degree that’s oriented to early- or mid-career folks, Gerber said. The Emergency Management and Homeland Security degree is available online.

Part of the program’s meteoric success arises from the faculty, who are a mixture of various professors in the schools, along with a heavy component of faculty associates who are practitioners.

“That’s intentional,” Gerber said. “This being a professional degree, it’s important you have a blend of practitioner experience combined with an academic perspective that offers a different type of rigor useful to the students.”

Professor Eric Welch has done important research on how transportation departments manage extreme weather events. Associate Professor Yushim Kim has explored public health issues related to emergency management. Research Professor Melanie Gall is a hazards geographer studying the interaction between natural hazards and society. Her expertise lies in risk metrics (e.g., disaster losses, indices, risk assessments), hazard mitigation and climate-change adaptation planning as well as environmental modeling.

“The central strength of the program is that it’s an inherently interdisciplinary program precisely because policy and management issues in homeland security are inherently interdisciplinary in nature,” Gerber said. “When a disaster strikes, all types of professional disciplines are involved in response and recovery — really all phases of an emergency or disaster incident involves everyone from police and fire to public health to public works to transportation and the traditional emergency management office. We have all that expertise in the college, so the program really reflects that.”

Getting the program to the top of its game in such a short time took a lot of effort, said Siân Mooney, associate dean for Interdisciplinary Programs and Initiatives at Watts College.

“I am excited that we are No. 1 after only five years!" Mooney said. "This rank reflects the hard work and dedication of our faculty, and our commitment to engage community partners and students. The Watts College at ASU truly supports high-quality, interdisciplinary experiences that prepare our students for meaningful careers.”

Top photo: The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near in California in August 2013. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service/Wikipedia Commons