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Finance Lessons for Emergency Managers

An understanding of resource management is essential for emergency response workers looking to advance to the next level.

Written by Philip Baker
first responders at podium

Jill Ramaker, NIPSTA’s executive director, discusses the importance of financial skills in emergency management and how to use them to advance in your career.

In a world increasingly quantified and driven by dollars, perhaps it should come as no surprise that even an area like emergency management, tasked with responding to events both difficult to predict and often puzzling to measure, has seen financial and resource planning take center stage. 

Such a situation leaves a generation of emergency response workers eager to advance in their careers overwhelmed by the need for financial knowledge they never had the chance to acquire.

“It’s all about money,” says Jill Ramaker, who has taught a course on finance in emergency management in the Master of Science and Threat and Response Management (MScTRM) program. Ramaker is the executive director of the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA) and was recently a featured speaker in the MScTRM Seminar Series.

“New emergency management professionals get overwhelmed by the thought of financial management. They assume it must be hard, but it’s not. It’s just money. The more they’re able to accept and embrace that fact, the more financial management loses its mystique. That’s when careers really take off.”

About Jill Ramaker

Position
Executive Director at Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA); Master of Science in Threat and Response Management instructor

Facing Financial Complexity without Fear

As a graduate of the MScTRM program as well, Ramaker recalls being a student and coming to understand the value of adding financial management to her professional toolkit. 

After twenty-four years at NorthShore University HealthSystem, including several years of managing the Region X Disaster Healthcare Coalition and serving as NorthShore’s emergency preparedness manager, she entered the MScTRM program with an immense amount of practical experience and knowledge, but little by way of financial knowhow.

“My financial experience before the program was on par with what students entering today probably have,” she says. “Which is to say, pretty limited.”

She points to managing budgets, forecasting financial trends, and overseeing grant expenditures as key components to the financial side of emergency management.

“All of those can be very intimidating,” she adds. “Most students have never had this level of financial responsibility. Even if they know about the grants available to support special projects within the industry, they have very little experience with the process. Being able to deal with these complexities without fear is important when it comes to entering the professional world.”

I want [my students] to begin thinking on their own as they move on from being students and enter the professional world. I want them to confidently formulate their own professional opinion.

Jill Ramaker, MScTRM instructor

Quantifying the Unexpected

Having hired many students out of the program, Ramaker knows what skills signal a candidate’s potential to excel on the job. In particular, she cites two essential elements she likes to see—an ability to do budgets and a professional writing sample. 

“I like it when candidates come into an interview and they’re able confidently to say, ‘Yes, I can do a grant proposal. Yes, I can do a budget. And here’s my writing sample.’”

As an example of the type of writing, she suggests they might write an answer to a question like, “What is the return on investment for preparedness?” Ramaker calls it a really hard question with no good answer. And that is the point. 

“I want the applicants I go onto hire to have an ability to think on their own,” she says. “That’s critical as they transition from being students to the professional world. I want them to confidently formulate their own professional opinion. It doesn’t have to be right. There is frequently no right answer. We’ve all struggled with this type of question in emergency management. It’s very difficult even for the most senior professionals to quantify the financial investment for crisis preparedness when it’s impossible to know the outcome.”

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Maximizing Investment in Your Career

In the end, Ramaker draws lessons from the steps she took after completing the MScTRM program. She focuses in particular on how she was able to maximize what she learned for the benefit of her career. 

“I call it ‘maximizing your investment in yourself,’” she says. “I took the time and money I invested in the program to take my career to the next level, because my career really took off after I graduated from the program. That’s what I’d share with students in the program today. I want to tell them that there’s still hard work ahead of them, but that there’s also great hope for a wonderful and successful career.”

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