Support for International Women’s Day

From Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Director Andrew Phelps

Dear Emergency Management Partners,

International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month provide opportunity to reflect how women have fundamentally shaped the world we live in. It’s also a time to consider the “firsts.” Just as our career paths are full of “firsts” — that first FEMA ICS certificate, our first incident or EOC activation; there are also significant markers along the way, especially in historically male-dominated fields like emergency management, when it comes to representation—the first woman to do X, or the first woman to lead Y, or the first woman to fight for Z.

“Firsts” matter – they show us strengths, learnable lessons, room for growth and are often the result of opportunities given by the work of those before us.

When I look around my OEM team and reflect on “firsts” in my own career, a common thread emerges: the smart, strong, innovative and compassionate women with whom I’ve been honored to work. I recall how nervous I felt when I received the job offer from my first emergency management boss, Valli Wasp, in New Mexico. She immediately put me at ease about the move across the country to take the position. That opportunity led to so many other firsts, like my first EOC activation, led by an incredibly talented emergency manager, Yvonne Gantz. I would soon be encouraged to speak at my first conference by another amazing leader in my organization, Susan Walker, and to get ready for my first television interview I was prepped by an absolute legend in the PIO world, Beverly Allen.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say that while the work we do is a career, it is also a public service. The women in Oregon emergency management and 9-1-1 have led the state’s response to disasters, developed and implemented innovative plans, built programs, led some of our state’s largest and busiest 9-1-1 centers. These women serve Oregon from their hearts, and often without receiving the recognition they deserve. We have shown what our profession can be when we elevate the ideas, skills, strengths and leadership of women. I’m proud that half of our OEM workforce is women, many in positions of leadership. Women lead many city, county and tribal emergency management programs all over the state. When the State’s ECC is activated, many of the Emergency Support Function leads are women. And for the first time in history, we are poised to see the Senate confirm a woman to lead FEMA.

This profession has made impressive strides towards gender equity in the workplace, but as I speak with many of the women in our field, it is clear much more needs to be done. So today on International Women’s Day, it’s time to “Choose to Challenge.” The past 12 months have been challenging enough to say the least, especially here in Oregon. But I ask you, especially my male colleagues, to initiate a challenge to yourself: support and elevate the female voices and perspectives in our work.

What does this look like? It looks like gender equity in our professional panels at conferences, forums or workshops. Personally, I will decline any invitation to take part in panels where all other presenters are men. I am directing my team at OEM, when scheduling events, to ensure any panel with three or more panelists will include female representation. This practice should also be infused into our hiring processes. Oregon is a unique and diverse state, so it stands to reasons that we need a unique and diverse emergency management workforce to best serve the state we love. Women of all colors and backgrounds should be able to see themselves in our profession. When we conduct interviews at OEM our panel interviews will include women from our profession. It is important those we interview to work with us see themselves represented in our hiring processes. I’m counting on you to look for opportunities to adopt and formalize this practice within your organizations and jurisdictions—mentorships, paid internships, social media content, and hiring committees – to help build a more diverse workforce.

And my final challenge: Be respectful. Be supportive. Be cognizant of the decades of gender bias that has shaped much of our profession, that still exist, and commit to eliminating those biases. This may be as simple as actively listening when your female colleagues are speaking or advocating for change when you see an instance of gender bias, no matter how subtle. And by the way, these challenges apply to every day – not just March and certainly not just today.  

In the words of our nation’s first woman Vice President, “I may be the first woman…but I won’t be the last.” So today let’s celebrate International Women’s Day in the best way we can: by valuing the incredible women who serve Oregon day in and day out, and finding ways to smooth the path towards a career in emergency management for generations of women to come.

Best regards,


Andrew Phelps, Director

Oregon Office of Emergency Management
Office 503-378-3933
Cell 971-283-4258