Anticipating the future of EM education in Canada: educational opportunities and challenges for the future

A faculty perspective

By Jodi Manz-Henezi

Disaster and Emergency Management (DEM) post-secondary programming has evolved significantly over the past decade in response to the increased frequency, variety, and severity of disaster events that are occurring at both the local and global scale.  The increased complexity and interconnectedness of our natural and human systems requires knowledge and skill sets specific to the prevention/mitigation, preparation, response to, and recovery from disaster events.   This means that there is still a lot of emphasis on response training and activities, exercises that are almost exclusively based on response scenarios and static, institutionalized management systems like the Incident Command System (ICS) that prioritize response capacity and practices.   If we continue to focus on response, we will not address the significant social, environmental, and financial issues created by disaster events. Resilience, as a fundamental goal, will never be achieved.  Our ever-evolving hazardscape requires that we invest more time and energy into finding forward-thinking solutions that support mitigation work in order to achieve the following:

  • lessen the impacts of disaster;
  • achieve sustainable development; and
  • allow for pre-disaster recovery planning that will emphasize resilience over restoration.

There is also a shift in “who” is interested in DEM professionally, and increasing recognition of DEM as a necessary, standalone, and unique discipline.  DEM students are no longer just ex-military/first responders seeking to acquire some form of credentialing; we are seeing more mature students transitioning from a variety of disciplines as well as high school graduates who see DEM as a credible career path.  These individuals bring skills and ideas that will contribute to the creation of new types of DEM talent: those focused on all aspects of the entire DEM system and the use of technology and innovation to address the complex risks and hazards that we face as a global society.

From an educational perspective, we also need to be nimble and find ways to reach students wherever they are in time and space.  This means that we are seeing more need for engaging blended, online, asynchronous, or “bite-sized” learning that supports DEM professionals across the lifespan of their career, from entry-level to advanced, with ongoing professional development throughout.  We need to find appropriate mentorship, and practical work-integrated learning opportunities that will support student growth and confidence. These need to include multiple stakeholder partners, not just those typically concerned with response activities.  We need to make better use of virtual technologies.  We need more cross-pollination between the researcher and practitioner communities, and likely need to create a new breed of DEM professional who is able to contribute to, and use, current knowledge and best practices to lead change and innovation at the practical level, regardless of the sector/position in which they are located.

We need more leaders in this realm.  We need to better define ourselves as a unique profession, and take appropriate steps for this recognition, including the development of DEM-specific National Occupational Classification (NOC) codes, so that our students can have greater success getting into jobs that will capitalize on their learning and abilities.  This will also help employers create appropriate job descriptions that reflect their current and future needs, and not just propagate archaic HR practices that reinforce that “who you know” in this field is more important than “what you know”, and that experience is only gauged based on the number of responses that you have been on.  We need to create education programs that support agreed upon baseline and advanced competencies for us as a profession, with some type of oversight from a licensing/accrediting body.

So, these are both our challenges and our opportunities, in practice and in the educational setting, and I for one am excited to contribute to helping chart the path forward and continuing to advocate for change and progress in how we create and deliver relevant education and learning.

A student/program graduate perspective

By Shauna Hetherington

Since my 2018 graduation from NAIT’s DEM program, I have obtained meaningful, full time employment, an appointment as an Emergency Management Advisor on the Board of Directors for the Edmonton Emergency Relief Services Society, public speaking opportunities, and unique leadership positions within the volunteer community.

But it wasn’t easy.

Locating qualified DEM individuals to talk to about this field and finding Canadian DEM-specific organizations was a struggle. As a mature student, the lack of easily identifiable DEM professionals with whom to connect and converse, concerned me. However, I took a leap of faith and enrolled in NAIT’s online program. At my personal expense, I started attending industry conferences across Canada. I networked with relevant professional organizations and introduced myself to members and associates. If there was an invitation secured by my program to attend a training exercise, I made sure I rapidly hit the enter button on my keyboard to secure a limited seat. I was thrilled to talk to anyone who would lend me an ear and allow me to share with them my aspirations to become a “disasterologist”. Outside of full-time studies, participating in extracurricular learning and application activities was critical to my success in the DEM field.  I also learned that the scope of DEM work was broad and that there was a lack of an accrediting body within Canada to help streamline and ‘sense-make” the various areas of focus in DEM. With the absence of formalized competencies, schools such as NAIT are left to decide which areas of learning will be the most beneficial for their students and prospective employers. Most businesses want to be resilient when impacted by disaster and are interested in seeking long-term professional guidance. However, without a regulatory body in Canada to help formalize a DEM structure and provide guidance, businesses and organizations struggle to effectively manage their evolving DEM needs and priorities without having qualified people in place,   This cyclical gap can affect skilled, diploma-holding graduates like myself from gaining long-term employment in the field of their choice, and it affects communities and organizations from achieving the level of nimbleness and resiliency that is so critical in today’s world.

Our world needs DEM. Our nation needs qualified persons who are dedicated to reducing our country’s complicated vulnerabilities to disaster. By developing a dedicated accrediting body for DEM in Canada, we can better support educational institutions in providing relevant, skilled people who can advance this critical work in all aspects of our community.


About the authors:

Jodi Manz-Henezi, BSc, BA, MA-DEM is the Program Chair for the Disaster and Emergency Management program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), and a board member with CRHNet.


Shauna Hetherington is an Emergency Management Advisor. She is a member of NAIT’s alumni community, graduating in 2018. She continues to provide mentorship to current students and is a champion for NAIT’s rapidly growing DEM program.