Skip to main content

Disaster Operations Specialist: Salary and Job Description

November 9, 2022

Whether coordinating emergency responses to natural disasters like the wildfires in California or complex disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, disaster operations specialists help execute strategic responses to crises. Individuals inspired by disaster management careers and considering earning a Master of Public Health in Disaster Management online should explore the important role of disaster operations specialist. 

What Is a Disaster Operations Specialist?

Disaster operations specialists plan emergency responses for natural and human-caused disasters, armed conflicts, terrorism incidents, hostage situations, and complex disasters caused by political instability, war, and poverty. They also coordinate disaster preparedness training to ensure response teams have the needed skills to address crises when they arise.

Climate, geographic location, and political situation all potentially influence the types of emergencies a community may experience. For instance, disaster operations specialists analyze information about what may make a community particularly vulnerable to food scarcity, a disease outbreak, landslides, or civil unrest. They develop plans to help prevent disasters or minimize their impact’s severity.

The Role of a Disaster Operations Specialist

The core responsibilities of a disaster operations specialist are twofold. First, they strategize preparation plans for potential emergencies. Second, they focus on the response and recovery process in disaster aftermaths. Both core responsibilities are bound by one key tenet: mitigating the shattering impact of disasters.

Disaster Preparedness Plans               

Disaster operations specialists develop plans that outline how to become disaster ready. This usually starts with assessing risks and vulnerabilities. Disaster operations specialists examine data on existing and potential threats and how those threats could affect a community.

They also examine what might make a community more vulnerable to a disaster. For example, poverty could affect a community’s ability to evacuate during a hurricane. Specific homes’ and buildings’ structural designs could make them less likely to withstand an earthquake.

Having evaluated risks and vulnerabilities, disaster operations specialists analyze a community’s existing capabilities to handle various emergencies, considering such questions as:

  • Do hospitals have personal protective equipment stockpiles in case of an infectious disease outbreak?
  • Do emergency responders, volunteers, and community members have sufficient access to first aid and disaster training?
  • Do governments and community-based organizations have strong collaborative networks and are they prepared to pool resources and coordinate services during an emergency?

With an understanding of a community’s capacity to manage crises, disaster operations specialists can explore ways to address deficiencies in everything from emergency communications to critical transportation to public information and warning systems.

Another key way disaster operations specialists prepare for emergencies involves training initiatives. They assist in teaching disaster response procedures to community members, public agencies, and private organizations.

Disaster Response and Recovery               

In addition to their preparation and mitigation activities, disaster operations specialists take part in disaster response and recovery initiatives. This involves coordinating immediate relief efforts after a disaster hits to bring stability and humanitarian relief to community members. It also involves orchestrating ongoing efforts to assist in a community’s rebuilding and renewal efforts.

For example, disaster operations specialists may coordinate search and rescue missions. They may also participate in developing strategies to deliver:

  • Emergency health services
  • Emergency food and water
  • Temporary shelter

Recovery work often addresses social service needs, helping people find permanent housing and assisting individuals in getting funding to rebuild.

Where Do Disaster Operations Specialists Work?

Primarily, emergency management agencies at the local, state, federal, and international levels — governmental and nongovernmental — hire disaster operations specialists. These agencies include:

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • City governments
  • International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
  • United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Other organizations, including hospitals and private companies, may also employ disaster operations specialists to prevent and respond to emergencies and help them stay operational.

Disaster operations specialists work in teams under an emergency management leader’s guidance. Their collaborative work involves creating both disaster preparedness plans and disaster response and recovery plans, as well as seeking ways to lessen the severity of a disaster’s impact.

Daily Responsibilities of a Disaster Operations Specialist 

Disaster operations specialists have a diverse set of responsibilities. On a daily basis, they engage in a number of tasks, including:

  • Researching areas at risk of natural disasters and developing specific natural disaster preparedness plans
  • Planning emergency evacuation routes that allow for speedy departures
  • Preparing damage assessments and reports on the status of recovery efforts
  • Serving as a liaison between governmental agencies
  • Monitoring emerging disasters and humanitarian efforts
  • Tracking efforts to reduce disaster risks
  • Communicating with regional offices and field representatives to ensure understanding of existing or imminent emergencies
  • Preparing briefing papers, fact sheets, and talking points that inform the public of disaster response activities
  • Examining emergency response activities to ensure they are technically feasible and conceptually sound
  • Participating in interagency meetings and forums
  • Deploying to crisis situations as part of disaster assistance response teams

Disaster Operations Specialist Skill Requirements 

The multifaceted nature of the disaster operations specialist role can make it a complex profession, whether an individual is strategizing preparations for the next emergency or executing recovery strategies. This complexity requires those in the role to have a diverse skill set.

  • Leadership skills. This competency is essential in the wake of a disaster, as it enables individuals to not only take charge of situations as they rapidly evolve but also inspire others to follow their lead. This creates a synergy that can be just as vital when rolling out new preparedness measures as it is during a recovery situation.
  • Strong communication skills. Clear communication will help people in crises understand precisely what they need to do. In a disaster’s aftermath, clear communication is also key, helping people understand where to get needed supplies quickly, for example. 
  • Interpersonal skills. They may work in collaboration with all kinds of entities, including government agencies or public health and safety organizations, such as fire departments or law enforcement, joining forces to execute response strategies. 
  • Critical thinking and decision-making skills. These skills allow disaster operations specialists to act quickly and decisively when every second counts.

How to Become a Disaster Operations Specialist 

Becoming a disaster operations specialist requires attaining the right education and experience. Those aspiring to achieve this leadership position in disaster management should consider taking the following steps. 

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree               

Disaster operations specialists need at least a bachelor’s degree in either disaster management or a related public service discipline such as public health. This degree can provide a foundation in disaster preparedness, risk reduction, and emergency planning.

It also qualifies individuals to assume entry-level positions in emergency management to gain the important experience needed for leadership roles down the line.

Step Two: Earn a Master’s Degree               

Many employers prefer disaster operations specialist candidates with a master’s degree in emergency management. The degree offers an in-depth study of strategic planning in disaster response and recovery, critical communications, and vulnerability and risk assessment, along with other key emergency management and concepts.

Step Three: Gain Work Experience               

Disaster operations specialist positions require experience in the field. Those interested in the career can benefit from work with a humanitarian focus or in disaster response. This work, along with experience in emergency relief programs or post-emergency recovery, helps develop critical skills in areas such as needs assessment, communication, and problem-solving.

It also helps cultivate the ability to remain calm in stressful situations, which is key to succeeding as a disaster operations specialist.

Step Four: Get Certified              

Though not always required, certifications in emergency management can help those seeking work as disaster operations specialists gain a competitive edge. The International Association of Emergency Managers offers the CEM, or the certified emergency manager credential, which indicates to employers an individual has achieved a high level of knowledge, experience, and training in emergency management.

Some CEM requirements include:

  • Emergency and general management training: 200 hours
  • An essay
  • References
  • An exam
  • Emergency management work history and experience
  • Bachelor’s degree

Disaster Operations Specialist Salary and Job Outlook 

According to Payscale data as of May 2022, disaster operations specialists had a median annual salary of around $80,000. The disaster operations specialist’s salary range was from about $51,000 to about $96,000 a year. This range reflects differences in years of experience, skill levels, and geographic locations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 6 percent growth between 2020 and 2030 for leadership positions in emergency management, which is about as fast as the average job growth (8 percent). 

Launch a Career as a Disaster Operations Specialist 

When disasters strike, aid follows — thanks to dedicated professionals in emergency management. They both lessen the impact of disasters and bring relief to those in crisis. Knowing the disaster operations specialist’s salary and job responsibilities is an important first step to launching a disaster operations specialist career.

Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health in Disaster Management can prepare graduates to become leaders in emergency management. The program can equip students with the knowledge and expertise to make key decisions that ready communities to meet disaster and keep them resilient in its wake. 

Learn how you can become a strategic leader in a vital field.

Recommended Readings

In-Demand Emergency Management Jobs

Benefits of Earning a Disaster Preparedness Degree

Flood Preparedness: What You Need to Know


Betterteam, Emergency Management Specialist Job Description

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, State and Local Readiness, Public Health Preparedness Capabilities

Devex, USPSC Disaster Operations Specialist 

FEMA, Core Capability Development Sheets

FEMA, National Preparedness System

International Association of Emergency Managers, Certification Intro

Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management, Vulnerability and Risk

Payscale, Average Disaster Recovery Specialist Salary

Physiopedia, Disaster Management

Scientific American, “California Braces for Another Cataclysmic Wildfire Season”

Theoretical Biology and Medical Modeling, “The Impact of Natural Disasters on the Spread of COVID-19: A Geospatial Agent-Based Epidemiology Model”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Emergency Management Directors