Disaster Operations Specialist: Salary and Job Description

Traffic backs up on a highway behind a round blue sign that reads, “Hurricane evacuation route.”

Whether coordinating emergency responses to natural disasters, such as wildfires in California, or complex disasters, such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, disaster operations specialists help execute strategic responses to crises. Those inspired by disaster management careers should explore the disaster operations specialist role and what it takes to become one, along with the operations specialist salary and job outlook.

What Does a Disaster Operations Specialist Salary Pay For?

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. Disaster operations specialists analyze information about what may make a community particularly vulnerable to, for example, 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

Primarily, emergency management agencies at the local, state, federal, and international levels, both 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
  • 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.

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 a disaster, 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.

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 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

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 a least a bachelor’s degree in either disaster management or a related public service discipline such as public health. This degree provides a foundation in disaster preparedness, risk reduction, and emergency planning.

It also qualifies individuals to assume entry-level positions in emergency management to gain 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, 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 develop critical skills in areas such as needs assessment, communication, and problems-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 2021, disaster operations specialists have an annual median salary of around $80,000. The disaster operations specialist salary range is 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 projects a 4 percent growth between 2019 and 2029 for leadership positions in emergency management.

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 salary and its job responsibilities is an important first step to launching a disaster operations specialist career.

Learn more about how Tulane University’s Master of Public Health in Disaster Management prepares graduates to become leaders in emergency management.

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Better Team, Emergency Management Specialist Job Description

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Capabilities: National Standards for State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Public Health”

Devex, USPSC Disaster Operations Specialist

FEMA, Core Capability Development Sheets

FEMA, National Preparedness System

Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management, Vulnerability and Risk

PayScale, Average Disaster Recovery Specialist Salary

Physiopedia, Disaster Management

Unchannel, Disaster Operations Specialist

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Careers in Disaster Relief”

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