New master’s program advances disaster management

A new master’s program at York University recognizes what terrorist attacks and tsunamis have demonstrated clearly: disasters are seldom simple.

The Master of Arts in Disaster & Emergency Management program at York, which began earlier this month, is the only graduate program of its kind in Ontario. Undergraduate-level courses such as York’s certificate program in emergency management teach students core knowledge needed to become emergency managers in the public and private sector. However, York’s masters program will delve deeper, training students to look at the big picture, critically analyze scenarios and develop solutions that integrate all of the issues involved.

“Fundamentally, the program is about people and how we deal with risk,” says Professor David Etkin (right), director of the new graduate program. “By the time they graduate, students in the masters program will be able to identify specific root causes of all kinds of disasters, whether they are natural, technological or health disasters.”

The students will learn how to develop risk reduction programs that take into account links between social, environmental and technological factors. They will also learn about behavioural and organizational aspects of emergency and disaster management, so they will be able to deal with emergency situations that involve complex relationships between a number of agencies or institutions.

“The field of disaster and emergency management is very diverse, so it’s a fantastic opportunity for interdisciplinary learning,” says Etkin. “A disaster such as Hurricane Katrina can be examined from an engineering or environmental point of view, or a sociologist might examine the racial aspects – for example, why whites who took what they needed from stores were viewed as people trying to survive, whereas blacks were seen as looters.”

Using case studies such as Katrina, and simulating real-world experience in labs, students are studying how vulnerability could be reduced by changing relationships between man and his environment, and by changing the rules of social relationships. Experts working in the field will be brought in as guest lecturers, and the program will draw on a wide range of disciplines, approaches and methodologies.

Right: The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, known by the scientific community as the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, triggered a series of devastating tsunamis which destroyed many coastal communities in South and Southeast Asia

The number and magnitude of emergencies and disasters are on the rise, along with demand for experts in the field. Emergencies are events that cause death or injury and may seriously disrupt business or operations, for example, whereas disasters are generally larger and more complex events and seriously disrupt a society’s ability to cope.

“It’s a growing academic field of study that can have great social impact,” says Etkin. “You’re not just satisfying your curiousity and learning about a new field. You’re studying something which can really contribute to the greater social good.”

One of the goals of the program is also to increase scholarly research into important questions that have not been well-researched before, says Etkin. For example, “What do we want the community to look like after it is rebuilt, and how does that relate to the decisions we’re making now? What do disasters cost us and what do we put into preventing them? And how will current climate trends change the severity and frequency of natural disasters?”

Classes in the MA program began this month with two dozen students. They bring a range of education and expertise to the course, from undergraduate education in emergency management or in other fields, to practical experience in the field.

To watch a video about the Master of Arts degree program in Disaster & Emergency Management, go to program video and click to play.