In case of an emergency: York students put theory into practice

The Sunrise Propane explosion, the 2003 blackout and extreme winter weather demonstrate the degree to which residents of Toronto are often ill-prepared for emergencies.

Over the coming year, MA students in York University’s Disaster & Emergency Management Program will put theory into practice by helping residents in the Black Creek and Jane-Finch communities prepare for such events, thanks to a $56,000 grant from State Farm Insurance.

Left: The night sky was ablaze on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008 as a fireball exploded into the air above Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases, a propane and industrial gas sales and storage facility located south of York’s Keele campus . Some 12,000 residents were evacuated from the area.

On Monday, March 2, officials from State Farm Insurance visited York’s Keele campus to present the grant cheque to the University. The event also marked the launch of the Atkinson Emergency Management Service Learning Initiative.

Operated through York’s Experiential Education Department, the program will focus on helping area school children and residents prepare for extended power outages, ice and snow storms, and other potential disasters. York students will work with a range of partners, including residents, the Toronto District School Board, Emergency Management Ontario, Toronto Community Housing and emergency services such as fire and police departments. The overall goal is to distribute disaster preparedness information and kits at key sites, such as local schools, apartment buildings and recreation centres.

"Disaster and emergency management isn’t just about helping people cope after a catastrophic event, it’s using the skills we’ve developed as part of our training to convince people in the community that preparing for an emergency now is their best defence," said Mohamed Abdelrahim, one of three York students along with Geoff Webb, senior manager of Experiential Education, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, who jointly applied for the grant.

Above: York student Damien Harry (left) along with fellow York student Mohamed Abdelrahim (fourth from left) and Rhonda Lenton, dean of York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies (far right), accept a cheque from representatives from State Farm Insurance. The $56,000 grant will support the Atkinson Emergency Management Service Learning Initiative, an experiential education program designed to assist local residents with developing their own emergency preparedness plans.

"We envision this program as a two-way street. As students, we’ll learn about the everyday challenges of rolling out an emergency preparedness plan in the community, and residents will have an opportunity to learn about the tools and techniques that can help them cope with an event," said Abdelrahim.

"The prospects of this program strike a genuine chord within me," said Abdelrahim. "Not only am I a York student, but I am also a lifelong resident of the community adjacent to York University. Let me tell you that such capacity-building opportunities for residents scarcely exist."

The program is important, he said, because it will offer students a first-hand understanding of the myriad of challenges that will be encountered when rolling out an emergency management program. Disaster preparedness is not on the top of the lists of residents in local communities, said Abdelrahim, because they face other challenges, including unemployment, poverty and other issues.

The recent Sunrise Propane explosion brought to the forefront a dialogue about emergency preparedness, but there is still much work to be done, he said, to ensure that the local community fully understands the importance of emergency management and being prepared. "As with all York initiatives in the community surrounding the University, the goal is to make a tangible, lasting difference to the neighbourhood. Thank you State Farm Insurance for your support of this initiative."

The program is the first of its kind in Canada to be financed through a grant from State Farm Insurance’s Youth Advisory Board. The Youth Advisory Board selects and oversees each project it funds and stipulates that projects be youth-led and that they have a direct impact on local communities.

In keeping with this mandate, a grant advisory council from the York University-TD Community Engagement Centre will consult with York emergency management student leaders to ensure the particular needs of the community are met.

More about the Disaster & Emergency Management Program

York’s Master of Arts in Disaster & Emergency Management is the only graduate program of its kind in Ontario and one of only two in Canada. It is designed to meet the critical need for professionals with advanced-level knowledge and skills in this exciting and important field.

Studying on either a full-time or part-time basis, students develop the knowledge and skills to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from local, national and international disasters and emergencies.

The program is interdisciplinary, drawing on the strengths of faculty from across York University to offer a wide range of expertise in areas like environmental risks and management, natural hazards, business continuity, public health, humanitarian law, public safety and security, crisis management, war and complex emergencies.