Hurricane Katrina. Columbine. Newtown. 9/11. The Boston Marathon bombing. Whether they're caused by violence, terrorism, or natural disasters, critical incidents, unfortunately, are a part of life in modern society.

And when you're a law enforcement officer, like Saint Leo University alumnus Brian McNulty, it's your job to prepare for and try to prevent these events from happening, as well as manage the fall-out, if they do.

"In today's world the need for critical incident management is more of a vital component to every agency than ever before. There's a saying 'it's not if it will happen, but when it will happen,'" says McNulty, the captain of Florida's Haines City Police Department.

Passionate About Protecting the Public

Since his dad (pictured below at McNulty's promotional ceremony) was a New York police officer, McNulty knew from a young age that he wanted to make law enforcement his career, as well. After earning a bachelor's degree at Iona College and graduating from the Kenneth C. Thompson Institute of Public Safety, he made his way up the ranks of the Haines City Police Department—from patrol officer to captain.

Haines City hosts several large events each year—from its annual July 4th celebration to an Ironman race, which draw thousands to the city. The threat for hurricanes, as well as the potential for serious crime, is also present in this growing central Florida city.

So when McNulty was promoted to captain in 2012, he knew that being second in command of the Haines City Police Department and his role running the departments' everyday operations would require specialized knowledge in critical incident management.

That's when he turned to Saint Leo University to pursue his online master's in criminal justice with critical incident management specialization.

Fitting Online Courses Into Work and Family Life

McNulty chose the Saint Leo program because it provided convenient online courses that he could take while still balancing work and family life and because the university was faith-based.


The two-year master's degree program requires 18 core criminal justice credits, 12 critical incident management credits, and six elective credits. McNulty took courses in management of critical incident operations, risk identification and assessment, psychological aspects of critical incidents and the impact of terrorism on homeland security.

"The faculty was absolutely tremendous. They always made themselves available," he says.

The biggest challenge for McNulty was time management.

For example, a blog post or written assessment might be due on a Tuesday, responses in online discussion boards might be due Thursday, and a paper might be due Friday. He credits his wife, Shannon, and his daughters, Riley and Casey, with helping to keep him on track. Each night, he would sit around the kitchen table working on homework as his daughters worked on theirs.

"The kids got to see how hard daddy was working and it pushed them. I'd see them pushing themselves, and it made me work twice as hard," he says.

Sharing His Professional Expertise

McNulty's favorite part of the degree program was his capstone project, where he had the opportunity to teach two undergraduate classes on cold case homicides.

"Being able to provide my 15 years of law enforcement experience and everything I learned in the online master's degree program and give a little bit of that to current undergraduate students at Saint Leo was great," McNulty says.

His capstone experience also was good for recruiting students to work for the Haines City Police Department: he ended up hiring two undergraduates from the classes he taught, and is looking to hire more.


Emergency Mode Experience

Since completing his master's degree program earlier this year, McNulty continues to use what he learned at Saint Leo every day.

"It's inevitable that critical incident management will be used in the law enforcement realm, whether it's a large-scale natural disaster, a homicide, or a school incident," McNulty says. "There's not a month that goes by where our agency doesn't have a critical incident where we have to assess risk, manage the incident, and evaluate and provide assistance to those in need."

For example, before participating in the Saint Leo master's degree program, McNulty saw the impact of several hurricanes, particularly three hurricanes in central Florida in 2004 – Charley, Ivan and Jeanne – when the city lost power for weeks.

While individuals and families were trying to cope, McNulty and the Haines City Police Department were in emergency management mode: evacuating neighborhoods before the storm, going house-to-house after the storm to check on people, addressing traffic issues caused by lack of electricity, ensuring people who needed medical attention received it, making sure the city's water source was working and clean, setting up food and water distribution centers, patrolling at night to prevent looting, and checking with other officers to ensure they were dealing with the psychological aspects of the traumatic events they witnessed.

Applying Classroom Lessons in the Real World

McNulty says the critical incident management courses at Saint Leo—which look at the history of critical incidents as far back as the 1800s and as recent as 9/11 and school shootings from the past few years— offer a new perspective.

In fact, using what he learned in class, McNulty has discovered more resources available to him and his police department. For example, in the past, he may not have considered getting in touch with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regarding a situation, but now he might if the situation warrants, so that he can use their expertise from dealing with similar situations in the past.

As his community prepares for its upcoming July 4th celebration, where the city will celebrate its centennial and anticipates crowds of more than 50,000 people, McNulty is meeting regularly with officers in his department and professionals from other agencies to discuss event logistics, security threats and detection, and crowd management, as well as pyrotechnic safety and security for the firework display.

As for McNulty's future, he hopes to get one more promotion. "Ultimately, I would love to follow in the footsteps of my friend and mentor, Chief Richard H. Sloan."

Are you considering specializing in critical incident management?

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Criminal Justice Careers: What's It Like To Be An FBI Agent?

Do Graduate Degrees Pay Off? [Infographic]

Online Degree Programs | Find The Right Fit For You

Images courtesy Brian McNulty