Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer
The College of DuPage's Homeland Security Education Center offers a wide range of incident response training classes.
When Kim Newell arrived at work at 8 a.m. Wednesday, she already had 15 voice mails from suburban flood victims who needed cleanup help from the overnight deluge.
Her office, Servpro of Palatine/Rolling Meadows, normally gets only a few calls a day. Lately, though, there seems to be more days like Wednesday, when a storm hits and they're slammed with calls.
"We've definitely had an influx of severe flooding damage," said Newell, the office manager. "We'll have nothing for a little while, then there'll be days like this ... and everybody wants you out right, right now."
As "big heat and big rain" plague the Midwest, the potential for disasters and emergencies increases, and so does the demand for disaster and emergency management services.
Jobs are increasing in both the public and private sector, ranging from companies like Servpro to disaster response consultants to specialists working for governments, corporations or health care facilities.
Suburban community colleges have spotted the opportunity, offering programs geared at training students in the field.
"There's a need to have more people involved in this career than ever before," said Sam Giordano, who runs the Emergency and Disaster Management program at Harper College in Palatine.
The number of emergency and disaster worker jobs is expected to increase by 23 percent in the next 20 years, according to the 2012-13 U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Not only have local governments been beefing up their emergency response plans and teams, but so have corporations like Walmart, Walgreens and even suburban retirement communities.
The median salary for an entry-level job in emergency disaster management is $37,600 a year, or about $18 an hour, the labor bureau's data showed. Government jobs in this field tend to pay more, local experts say.
"You can start at a nice living wage, there's no doubt about it," Giordano said.
Harper is one of a growing list of schools to offer degrees in the field — Harper has a two-year Associate in Applied Science Degree — and enrollment is on the rise. Class subjects range from incident management to ideologies of terrorism.
Last fall, the College of DuPage opened a $25 million Homeland Security Education Center, which includes a 9-11 relic and memorial. An estimated 7,600 students a year will participate in the center's wide range of incident response training classes.
"It's not the terrorists that are causing so much damage in our country, though. It's the natural disasters," said Giordano, who spent 35 years as a firefighter in the South suburbs. "We're having more disasters than ever before, with a higher degree of severity."
There is no data to prove if the Chicago area is experiencing more disasters, but the weather's getting hotter and wetter, according to the National Climactic Data Service.
Agency spokesman Deke Arndt said there's a noteworthy trend in the Midwest of more "big heat and big rain." That means higher temperatures and heavier single rainfalls, which can worsen flooding.
Nationally, over the past 50 years, temperatures are up by 2 degrees, and rainfall increased by 5 percent, NCDS data shows. The data is inconclusive on whether there's been an increase in tornadoes and severe storms, Arndt said.
The weather is a big reason municipalities, counties and state agencies give attention to their emergency and disaster plans. Private companies are, too.
At the Lifespace Community's Oak Trace retirement community in Downers Grove, a three-person team makes sure plans are in place for all sorts of emergencies or natural disasters — everything from flooding to a tree down across the main access road to someone with dementia going missing.
Oak Trace also developed an incident command system that smooths the process of emergency responders arriving on scene.
"If you think how governments respond when there's an emergency, we do the same thing," said David Docekal, Oak Trace's emergency and disaster management coordinator. "What they do in the public sector, we bring to the private sector."
Docekal, 31, a student in Harper College's EDM program, said his passion is responding to emergencies and helping people. Working in the field, he's realized a key part of the job is building relationships — knowing whom to call in different emergency scenarios.
The state has seen a jump in the number of people meeting the education and training standards needed for an Illinois Professional Emergency Management Certificate. Just a decade ago, all of the certificate holders could fit in a single photograph. In 2012, there were 32 first-time applicants and 31 renewed certificate, according to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
"It's an emerging field," Docekal said. "Throughout the country, there are more and more opportunities every year."
A good place to start, experts say, is to volunteer for an organization like the Red Cross. The majority of the organization is made up of volunteers, who respond mostly to small disasters like house fires but also to large-scale natural disasters.
Red Cross spokeswoman Martha Carlos said the organization is not currently hiring people, but it has volunteers with all sorts of expertise — everything from mental health to technology gurus — or even just people who want to help others in crisis.
Training programs for these volunteers are regularly held at Red Cross offices around the suburbs. The Red Cross is also launching a digital training program at www.redcross.org/news/press-release/Red-Cross-Launches-Digital-Training-Program.
"This is a great time to get in," Docekal said.