Falling In: How an Unexpected Turn of Events Led to Career Bliss
Matthew Doughtie is working in a career that he never imagined was possible. He is the Senior Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management & Communications (OEMC). It’s not a role he ever planned to be in. He finished college with a degree in geography and initially pursued a career as a cartographic editor. But due to a series of unplanned events, Doughtie now enjoys a career in emergency management where he is able to use his knowledge, experience and interests to support one of the country’s largest cities.
We had a chance to sit down with Doughtie to learn more about his work and the path that led him to fall into a career that he loves.
Tell us more about the work you do at the City of Chicago?
I’ve been with the City of Chicago since 2007. Currently, I work in the Planning and Response division, which falls under the city’s Office of Emergency Management & Communication. This department is commonly known for its 911 call center, but my unit is separate. We develop emergency and strategic plans for the city, supporting large special events that happen in the city and providing support for special emergency situations that may arise.
For instance, during the holidays, Chicago is host to The Magnificent Mile, an event that draws thousands of visitors to converge on Michigan Avenue. We step in to ensure all local agencies, like the fire and police departments, are in alignment with others involved in the event, which includes the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), as well as the public health department.
We also devote a fair amount of time preparing for and responding to major incidents where a lot of different agencies respond; for example, in the case of a natural disaster. We ensure proper coordination of the various agencies that may get involved: local, regional, state, and federal. Our goal is to ensure proper communication and resource management so everyone gets what he or she needs and the incident is managed smoothly.
Your work sounds exciting and challenging. How did you make the leap from cartographic editor to this role with the city?
My career path is definitely non-traditional. After college, I followed the expected path for most geography majors, spending my first five years working in geographic information systems (GIS). Then life happened. I got laid off and couldn’t find a new job in that career path right away, so I spent a year picking up various temporary jobs.
One day my phone rang. It was the company that laid me off. They were hiring contractors for a new operations center at OEMC that focused on monitoring major events, including homeland security alerts, in the city of Chicago. It was a new position. I had no direct experience in it, but they asked and I was ready to stop temporary work, so I said, “Sure, let’s give it a try.”
I spent a couple of years in that position. It was interesting work. But I was always curious about what was happening on the fourth floor. I noticed the people that worked there were more deeply ingrained in the emergency management process. So I poked around, introduced myself to some key people and was eventually able to land a position in my current role.
Since you didn’t have a college degree that directly related to your new career, how did you gain the knowledge and skills you needed to succeed?
I learned on the job. I also took professional development classes dealing with the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS standardizes emergency management to assure that, regardless of geography, everyone is using the same approach. The field of emergency management is still fairly new. It has roots in 9/11, but there have been other major events – like the California wildfires and Hurricane Katrina – that have contributed to the field’s rapid growth. Today, universities like CTU have degree programs directly related to emergency management.
Let’s take a step back in the conversation. Tell us more about that yearlong period of unemployment. What did you learn and how did it help you in your career?
As you can imagine, it was a frustrating period. Initially, I resented the employer that laid me off. It’s hard not to take those situations personally. I quickly realized that sitting around and doing nothing wasn’t an option, so I got to work even if that meant doing what I considered, at the time, to be menial temporary work. I had seven different temporary jobs in that year, but thankfully I left my previous employer on good terms. I kept a positive attitude and kept pounding the pavement looking for opportunities. When you’re not working, or doing what you think you should be doing, it’s easy to get down on yourself, but that won’t get you anywhere.
Great advice. Where do you see your career going next?
Good question. I love what I do and it’s exciting to see the field of emergency management continue to flourish. Chicago is the nation’s 3rd largest city, so there is a lot of potential in my office. My vision is to continue to grow in my position and possibly move up to deputy director one day.
We’ve learned a lot from your experience. What final advice do you have for students looking to fall into an emergency management career?
If you’re able to do it, explore volunteer opportunities to gain real-life experience. In the City of Chicago, we have a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) that is comprised of citizen volunteers who go through a 20-hour training course to prepare them to help first responders in an emergency situation. You could also get involved with the Red Cross. Of course, pursue a degree in emergency management, get experience, and read trade publications, like the Journal of Emergency Management.
And finally, be inspired. There is nothing better than working in a career that challenges you and feeds your passion. For me, watching the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina really affected me. Seeing the disorganization and chaos that ensued made me want to explore emergency management to help make the city safer.
image credit: LinkedIn