The social dimensions of disaster: Building relationships between social work and emergency management professionals

Julie Drolet, Ph.D., MSW, RSW, Professor, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary;
Bonnie Lewin, MSW, RSW, Emergency Planner, The City of Calgary;
Shivani Samra, BA, BSW, RSW, Research Assistant, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary;
Elladee Windsor, BA, MSW student, Research Assistant, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary

Disasters are local and global phenomena that have a catastrophic impact on the well-being of individuals, families, and communities, and disproportionately affect vulnerable populations (Gillespie & Danso, 2010). Although social work scholars and practitioners have been involved in disaster response and recovery for many years, many social workers are increasingly engaged in supporting individuals and communities in long-term disaster recovery (Drolet, 2019). The role of social work practitioners and human service professionals in disaster recovery was explored in a study titled “In the aftermath of the 2016 Alberta wildfires: The role of social work practitioners and human service professionals in long-term disaster recovery” funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant. The study recruited 140 participants in Alberta, Canada to share their experiences in semi-structured interviews, an online survey, and focus group discussions.

The profession of social work

The social work profession “promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people… Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and Indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing” (IFSW, 2014). While governments, non-governmental organizations and frontline emergency workers are often focused on the immediate post-disaster phase to restore infrastructure and secure damaged areas, social workers are engaged in short- and long-term disaster interventions to amplify the voices of people and communities (Alston, Hazeleger, and Hargreaves, 2019). With the rising frequency and intensity of disaster events around the world, it is critical to better understand the actual and potential contributions and capabilities of social workers in emergency management, including disaster contexts.

Social work perspective in disasters

The study found that social workers adopt various theoretical perspectives that inform their practice. Social work approaches include, but are not limited to, active listening, anti-oppressive practice, anti-colonial practice, anti-racism, community development, critical incident debriefing, loss and grief, person centered approach, solution-focused, strengths-based approach, ecological and systems theory approaches.

Social workers use a trauma-informed lens in their practice that recognizes individuals may not only be experiencing trauma related to the disaster event, but also reliving previous trauma. Alston, Hazeleger, and Hargreaves (2019, p. 120) identify that prior trauma can impact individuals during disaster response and recovery.

Social workers facilitate the empowerment of individuals by creating opportunities for citizens to work together to respond in diverse ways (Drolet, 2019, p. 12). Study participants gave examples of participating in interdisciplinary program creation, community recreation and education programs, inter-organizational support, and collaboration between social service organizations, specifically to ensure wraparound and holistic services that met the varied needs of community members.

Roles of social workers in disasters

Depending on the scope of social work practice, social workers were engaged in multiple and varied roles during the 2016 Alberta wildfire. Social workers conducted assessments, assisted clients to access services, provided counselling, offered peer support, supported first responders, provided holistic interventions at various levels, advocated for client needs, fostered community development, created business continuity plans, collaborated with other professionals, built relationships at various levels, and conducted research. The study findings identified the roles and responsibilities of social workers engaged in advocacy in social work practice and policy to meet people’s unique and complex needs. Social workers facilitated referrals and access to information. Social workers advocated for accessible, quality, inclusive and culturally appropriate services after the 2016 wildfire.

Social work and emergency management

Many social workers felt disconnected from local emergency management professionals and explained that their role was often not recognized or misunderstood. Social work professionals deliver essential health and social services in local communities and demonstrate adaptability and flexibility to meet the changing and unique needs of citizens and communities impacted by disasters. Social workers are an asset to emergency managers when planning for disasters in their community by advocating for the needs of citizens and promoting working with community members to create services that are embedded within the community.

Bauwens and Naturale (2017, p. 99) state that social workers can play a role in disaster management as they respond in a way that enhances emergency plans for families and the community. There is a need to promote interdisciplinary collaboration between social work and emergency management to foster resilience and support long-term disaster recovery in communities.


Many study participants indicated a lack of personal, workplace, and community preparedness for large-scale disasters such as the 2016 Alberta wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the study findings, it is recommended that professional development and training opportunities be provided to better prepare social workers for disasters in their community and that they contribute to community emergency plans.

If emergency management professionals engage social workers in emergency training, this will contribute to building community capacity and resiliency as social workers engage with individuals, families, and the community. A collaborative partnership between social work and emergency management professions in the design and delivery of training will be helpful to new social work graduates and practicing social workers.

An emergency management interdisciplinary team that engages social work skills in emergency planning, such as advocacy, trauma informed practice, a psychosocial focus and relationship building, will lead to stronger, better prepared and more disaster resilient communities.

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Elladee Windsor is a research assistant and Master of Social Work student at the University of Calgary, specializing in International and Community Development.
Bonnie Lewin is a social worker, the current co-chair of the SWAD Network and works for Calgary Emergency Management Agency. Her disaster experience has shown that collaboration with community partners is essential in all phases of disasters.
Shivani Samra is a registered social worker and research assistant with the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She has a passion for green social work and environmental justice.
Dr. Julie Drolet is a Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She is currently serving as co-chair of the SWAD Network and Project Director of the Transforming the Field Education Landscape (TFEL) partnership.