The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on Army readiness. Units had to change how they operated. Once-straightforward tasks, such as housing, feeding and training soldiers, grew significantly more complex as units operated under strict COVID protocols. Units took on myriad additional COVID-related responsibilities, such as screening, testing, quarantining, treating and vaccinating personnel.
Units learned to accomplish these unfamiliar tasks largely through trial and error as garrison emergency managers and public health officers were quickly overwhelmed and unable to support unit-level planning and execution of these tasks.
While ultimately, Army leaders prevailed in overcoming these challenges, it took months, if not years, of learning through trial and error to gain the required competence. To prevent a total loss of this investment of time and energy, the Army must find a way to manage the talent it developed throughout the pandemic.
With a relatively simple modification of the existing 5Y: Emergency Management skill identifier, the Army could rapidly identify personnel with the requisite knowledge and experience to effectively manage future pandemics or other domestic emergencies.
Skill identifiers are two-character codes that identify additional skills, training and/or qualifications an officer possesses beyond their standard area of concentration or MOS. The 5Y skill identifier identifies personnel with “knowledge and experience in managing of indigenous emergency service assets in the preparation for response to complex emergencies.” The current Emergency Management skill identifier evolved from the 5Y: Civil Defense Officer skill identifier. A holdover from the Cold War, the original 5Y skill identifier identified civil affairs officers with knowledge and experience in planning and preparing for the aftermath of a nuclear war or other radiological emergency.
In 2006, eligibility was expanded to officers in any area of concentration, not just civil affairs. To qualify for the skill identifier, personnel either had to complete a series of nonresident instruction courses through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or demonstrate equivalent experience from serving as a regional civil defense director or by certification as a Red Cross disaster relief manager.
Roughly a decade later, the skill identifier underwent another change. Beyond its name changing from Civil Defense Officer to Emergency Management, the civil affairs proponent also updated the skill identifier’s requirements to mirror those of the branch’s functional specialties: Economist (6C), Public Education Officer (6D), Civil Supply Officer (6E), Public Transportation Officer (6F), Public Facilities Officer (6G), Public Safety Officer (6H), Public Communication Officer (6R), Agriculture Officer (6U) and Cultural Affairs Officer (6V).
Based on the change, officers now require “a master’s degree or higher, from a regionally accredited college or university, in Disaster Management, Complex Services Management, or other related fields of study; and a minimum of 5 years civilian experience working in the emergency management field,” according to Department of the Army Pamphlet 611-21: Military Occupational Classification and Structure.
The updated qualifications make the skill identifier unattainable for most active-duty personnel. While the degree is attainable, few active-duty officers possess the requisite five years of civilian experience.
A simple modification to the 5Y qualification requirements could transform this rare skill identifier into a useful tool for the Army during future pandemics or other domestic emergencies. Imagine that with a few simple keystrokes, units could identify officers with the requisite knowledge and experience to confront such challenges and fully leverage their talents during times of crisis.
However, to achieve this, the Army first must update the criteria for the 5Y skill identifier.
Because Emergency Management is not one of civil affairs’ functional specialties, its qualifications can deviate from the other functional specialties’ relatively standardized requirements regarding education and civilian experience. While formal education in emergency management is exceptionally valuable, the Army should not overlook the value of on-the-job training and real-world experience.
As such, the updated requirements should offer both education and experience-based routes to qualification. For the education route, the Army could reduce the education requirement from a master’s degree to a bachelor’s, or even an associate’s degree, to identify a larger pool of personnel with formal education in emergency and disaster management.
The experience-based route would present a greater challenge and be more subjective in nature. While tens of thousands of Army personnel earned either the Humanitarian Service Medal or Armed Forces Service Medal for their contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic, simply having earned one of these medals is insufficient evidence of proficiency in emergency management.
Instead, officers seeking the skill identifier based on experience alone would need to prove they played a significant role in the planning and management of the pandemic or other emergency management activities, giving them the knowledge and competence required to meet the intent behind the updated skill identifier.
Rather than simply submitting a transcript to the proponent, these officers would need to provide significant documentation in the form of evaluations, award recommendations and/or statements from commanders that clearly articulate the details and duration of the officer’s pandemic or other emergency management responsibilities.
While the COVID-19 pandemic slowly fades into the background, it is important for the Army to learn from the experience and prepare for the next inevitable pandemic or emergency. By properly identifying personnel with the requisite education and/or experience in emergency management, the Army can rapidly identify and organize this talent to confront similar future challenges. However, we must take action to identify these officers now rather than wait until the next crisis presents itself.
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Lt. Col. Kenneth Segelhorst is the course director for the superintendent’s capstone course on officership at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He has served multiple combat and operational deployments throughout the U.S. Central, U.S. Africa, U.S. Indo-Pacific and U.S. European Command areas of responsibility. He earned the 5Y: Civil Defense Officer skill identifier in 2009.