What happens to a community in the absence of public safety? According to the World Justice Project, poor public safety breeds distrust among community members and makes sustainable and equitable development much harder. When people do not feel safe, they struggle to thrive — individually and as a community.
Public safety aims to protect a community from crime, disasters, and other threats. A director of public safety strives to identify and address challenges to community safety. Those inspired to become leaders in the field should consider a director of public safety’s role, required skills and education, and salary and job outlook.
Directors of public safety apply a range of strategies, including law enforcement, to ensure public safety. They serve in top-level positions within city and state jurisdictions, overseeing the public safety services delivered by governmental agencies such as:
- Police and fire departments
- Emergency management departments
- Animal control departments
- Emergency medical services departments
A director of public safety looks into the root causes of public safety threats. For example, a failure to enforce laws concerning speeding, impaired driving, or seatbelt use can increase traffic fatalities and injuries. If directors of public safety see a spike in vehicular deaths, their first move is to investigate why; then they take action.
Directors of public safety also monitor the use of public safety resources. For instance, large public events that draw crowds that engage in heavy drinking or drug use not only pose risks to those involved. They can also increase the demands on a city’s law enforcement and EMT resources, straining the city’s ability to respond to other situations or emergencies that present themselves.
In such cases, directors of public safety collaborate with first responders and other city officials to address public safety needs without overwhelming available resources.
Another aspect key to a director of public safety’s work involves creating and updating emergency preparedness and response plans that ensure municipalities can handle emergencies such as:
- Civil unrest
- Public health crises
- Chemical and nuclear power incidents
- Natural disasters
A director of public safety’s responsibilities include:
Directors of public safety make critical decisions about a jurisdiction’s public safety budget. A budget can dramatically influence how much money is allocated for:
- Recruiting, hiring, and training police officers, firefighters, and EMT personnel
- Crime investigation
- School safety
- Internal investigations into misconduct
- Investments in equipment, technology, and vehicles
- Violence prevention programs
- Police reform
- Emergency medical services
- Outreach and engagement
Proper funds allocation determines how well a jurisdiction can run the services and programs that keep people safe. It also allows them to fix long-standing problems and build healthier communities.
For instance, a director of public safety can bulk up the budget for enforcing accountability measures within the police department to address excessive use of force issues. To improve 911 communication systems, they can set aside additional money to replace outdated emergency technology.
Funding an upgrade to the emergency power system could mean less money is allocated to a youth intervention program to keep kids out of gangs. Directors of public safety must strategically distribute limited resources to ensure that no priority is shortchanged.
In some cases, directors of public safety who need more funding must lobby government and elected officials. They may also need to persuade colleagues to back their budget proposals.
Developing smart policies and procedures allows public safety personnel to:
- Plan for and respond to emergencies
- Prevent and investigate crime
- Strengthen community well-being
Well-designed policies also protect jurisdictions from financial problems and legal risks. Not aligning policies and procedures with federal and state laws and regulations can land jurisdictions in legal hot water.
Directors of public safety coordinate with the leaders of the departments they oversee, such as fire chiefs and police commissioners, to establish and implement strategic public safety policies and procedures that ensure public safety and keep departments up to date with compliance issues.
The policies and procedures of directors of public safety address:
- Professional codes of conduct for employees
- Hiring practices
- Policing practices
Effective policies and procedures can solve problems. For instance, to address distrust between a community and a police force, a director of public safety could introduce community policing efforts. This involves bringing police officers and community members into partnerships to solve problems and build understanding.
A director of public safety might also develop policies that encourage reconciliation between law enforcement and communities of color by seeking to find ways to bridge mutual distrust. This could involve community members and police officers having frank discussions about resolving grievances.
Directors of public safety coordinate and jointly lead emergency response efforts alongside emergency management directors, elected officials, nonprofits, and government agencies.
As emergency services coordinators, directors of public safety create and implement plans for:
- Preparedness (steps taken to get ready for an impending emergency and lessen its impact)
- Response (immediate actions taken after an emergency to save lives and protect property)
Preparedness may involve overseeing the:
- Development of contingency plans for hazardous materials
- Organization of exercises that simulate mobilizing and deploying emergency responders and resources
- Maintenance of emergency operations plans
Preparedness can also involve working with emergency management directors to identify hazards and analyze community vulnerabilities to various disasters. This allows for mitigation activities such as extending sewer lines to areas prone to flooding or creating a campaign that educates a community about fire prevention.
Directors of public safety show up to emergency scenes such as hazardous materials incidents or hostage situations to help coordinate a response. Alongside agency heads, such as fire chiefs, they also manage communications for emergency responders.
Succeeding as a director of public safety calls for an advanced education. Typically, this leadership position requires a master’s degree in disaster management, law enforcement, public policy, or a related field. It also demands extensive work experience in public safety to cultivate in-depth emergency services and management knowledge, as well as to gain supervisory experience.
Many positions also require one of many certifications related to emergency response management, along with specific training on topics such as incident command systems, which are management systems that help coordinate emergency responses between jurisdictions.
To serve their communities effectively, directors of public safety must cultivate critical skills as well, including the following.
Directors of public safety lead and coordinate multiple departments — often in high stress situations. As such, they must inspire trust, confidence, and cooperation. Much of their work involves team building and goal setting, practices that require projecting a clear vision and acting decisively. Directors of public safety often serve on committees designed to deal with issues such as emergency planning and organize large-scale programs, both of which call for strong leadership skills.
To foster positive working relationships with different agencies, directors of public safety must be excellent communicators. They need to express themselves clearly to advocate for policy proposals and budgets. Additionally, directors of public safety often lead practice exercises and training that call for strong communication skills.
Preparing budgets, planning emergency response measures, and developing strategic policies demand sharp analytical skills and an ability to see the big picture.
Directors of public safety must carefully assess preparedness levels for various disasters and devise plans that fill in readiness gaps. They must also critically examine resources and measure how best to use them.
According to ZipRecruiter data as of July 2021, most directors of public safety earn between $60,000 and $109,000 a year. Top earners make as much as $147,500 annually. Differences in job location and organization size can influence pay. The median annual salary of directors of public safety is $84,929.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects positions for professionals in emergency management to increase 4 percent between 2019 and 2029.
Directors of public safety use their time and talent to protect their communities. Their wealth of knowledge in emergency management services, budgeting, and strategic public safety policies enables them to solve problems and lift up community members.
Explore how Tulane University’s Master of Public Health in Disaster Management prepares graduates to become leaders in public safety.