What Is Disaster Preparedness?

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

After a disaster of any kind—from weather-related incidents to terrorist attacks—teams of recovery professionals spring into action to help clean up the damage. Before they can do that, however, their colleagues in disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation must establish a recovery plan. 

“Disaster recovery is about taking measures to prepare for and reduce the effects of bad things happening, and then to predict where they might happen next time and how to prevent them from happening at all,” says John Terpinas, professor of the practice and faculty lead at Northeastern University. 

Here’s what you need to know about a career in homeland security and disaster preparedness. 

What do Disaster Preparedness Professionals Do? 

Disaster preparedness and planning fall within the scope of homeland security. This field concerns itself with a range of national issues, including border access and immigration, terrorism, natural disasters, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure, and public health emergencies. Within each of these departments, professionals develop strategies for recovery from any number of events. 

“When we think of disasters, we’re thinking about everything: man-made, on purpose, not on purpose, intentional threats, and unintentional threats,” Terpinas says. “All of these events need some sort of strategy.”

Disaster preparedness strategy typically focuses on continuity of operations planning (COOP), which ensures that essential operations can continue during an emergency situation or be resumed as quickly as possible after an emergency event. 

COOP helps organizations identify critical departments, functions, records, and communications systems and understand how to maintain their operation and safety during an emergency. It also assigns orders of succession and delegates authority so that everyone knows who will be leading recovery efforts. 

“When you have a COOP meeting, every single department and agency is going to be at that meeting,” Terpinas says. “ It’s going to be a big meeting, because everybody has a piece of this effort.” 

The Disaster Preparedness Cycle 

One important tool for establishing robust COOP strategies is the disaster preparedness cycle, which outlines each important step of the recovery process. 

1. Mitigation 

Mitigation involves taking action to prevent or reduce the effects of a disaster. This can include reinforcing buildings against earthquake and wind damage, improving drainage and permanent barriers in flood-prone areas, or installing cybersecurity software to protect against digital threats. 

2. Prevention and Preparedness 

Planning, training, and live drills are all necessary tools in disaster preparedness. Professionals must develop training materials that explain what to do during a disaster, when to enact a plan, and more so that each member of an organization is ready to support recovery efforts. Preparedness can also include an audit of vulnerabilities within an organization that may leave it open to accidental or intentional disasters. 

3. Response 

During the response phase, disaster preparedness professionals lead the implementation of their prevention and COOP strategies. Because operations are not functioning normally during disaster response, it’s important that all team members are aware of their responsibilities, know where to go for accurate information, and understand how to communicate with each other and the public, if needed. 

4. Recovery 

Recovery begins after a disaster has ended. While normal business operations resume as much as possible, restoration efforts like rebuilding damaged structures and addressing long-term medical needs are also underway. During this stage, disaster preparedness professionals will examine what happened to create new mitigation strategies that better protect against similar events in the future. 

Careers in Disaster Preparedness 

When most people think of disaster preparedness, they may think of federal departments like Homeland Security and FEMA. Depending on your area of interest, there are a wide variety of these organizations in which security professionals can find careers. These roles include counterterrorism efforts, natural disaster planning, cybersecurity initiatives, and border security. 

Federal roles can be extremely competitive, Terpinas says. While these are indeed large employers of security professionals, all levels of government—from state to local—need similar support, and those seeking government roles may be able to find them closer to home. 

“Whatever town you live in, they probably have someone who does this,” Terpinas says. 

Roles in disaster preparedness are also available in the private sector. Many companies, especially international organizations, require extensive disaster planning to ensure their operations will be disrupted as little as possible during an emergency, particularly when it comes to cybersecurity. 

Earning Your Degree in Homeland Security 

Northeastern’s master’s in security and intelligence studies prepares students to develop and implement disaster planning through courses that emphasize COOP and other essential strategies. 

“We take a whole-of-government approach,” Terpinas says. “We want students to know who are the federal agencies involved, and what are their responsibilities? Who leads, and how do we know who leads? Who’s in charge when people show up to pick up the pieces, and how do we know that?” 

The program also emphasizes partnership with the private sector, which is an important element of disaster preparedness even when professionals are involved in federal organizations. Developing and nurturing these relationships is crucial to ensuring that plans can be fully implemented to speed up recovery processes. 

For example, “if we can’t have our Health and Human Services Department (who is in charge of administering the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine) go to their partners at CVS, Walgreens, UPS, it fails,” Terpinas says. 

In addition to these holistic approaches to disaster preparedness, students also benefit from professors’ real-world experiences. Most homeland security professors at Northeastern have at least 20 years of experience in the field, and many are still working in it today, enabling them to identify and incorporate current affairs and trends in security into their classroom exercises. 

For more information about advancing your homeland security career, visit our program page.