Masters of Disaster: Royal Roads Emergency Management students guiding Canadians through the COVID-19 pandemic

From helping coordinate the Armed Force’s largest medical operation since World War II, to leading planning with the federal government, Royal Roads Emergency Management students and grads are tackling crisis challenges with very real results for Canadians.

The skills developed in the Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management (MADEM) program are for disasters of all kinds. MADEM students and grads are working across Canada in the uncharted territory of a global pandemic.

Graduate Courtenay Kelliher, a registered nurse and MADEM student, advises more than 100 health care facilities in northern British Columbia. She helps manage the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the province and northern health region.

“Given the global PPE shortage, this work has a lot of challenges,” Kelliher says. She says she believes the disaster and emergency management process and practices she learned at Royal Roads prepared her to successfully manage in complex environments like the COVID-19 response.

Another MADEM graduate deeply involved in the COVID-19 response is Captain Mike Gauthier, a pharmacy officer in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Gauthier, who just graduated from the program this year, is currently tasked with Operation LASER, the CAF response to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and Canada’s largest medical operation since World War II.

“Pandemic response and recovery needs to have a multi-pronged strategy,” says Gauthier. Gauthier says coordination and strategic response are key in an emergency. “We are adjusting to a ‘new normal’ as we have met the challenges of this pandemic preparation and response.”

Gauthier’s classmate Margie Champion has also been a part of Canada’s response to COVID-19 in her role as a lead planner at Public Safety Canada’s Government Operations Centre. Champion helps to coordinate the whole-of-government federal response for all hazard types.

“COVID-19 has impacted all sectors to varying degrees,” says Champion. “Our ability to respond is heavily reliant on the relationships we have with our stakeholders and the relationships they have with others. Respecting, but knowing how to leverage these linkages has been invaluable.”

MADEM students like Jaya Bremer learn that the ability to provide sound policy or situation briefs in rapidly evolving circumstances is also an important skill in disaster and emergency management, as it contributes to risk reduction and community resilience.

“I’ve been researching various topics extensively to prepare briefs for the mayor and council,” says Bremer, who is currently on a work placement in the Emergency Operations Centre of the City of Langford in BC. “I’ve really hit the ground running, getting information to people as quickly as possible to help inform the decisions they make. It’s a challenge – it really surprises me how fast everything can shift,” she says about being on the front lines during a crisis.

Another MADEM student working in disaster response policy is Scott Ritzer, who works in the Alberta energy sector. He says the ability to make a case for policy change during a crisis is useful. Ritzer deals with unique challenges in the safe and reliable operations of essential services to hundreds of communities, with assets located across North America. He was recently faced with a multi-disaster situation when a flooded Fort McMurray area was evacuated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are many moving parts to the preparedness for and response to the pandemic,” Ritzer says. “My priority is always the safety of the 7,000 employees and contractors that work with us and what impact we many have on communities.”

The breadth of work underway also includes supporting re-opening and recovery efforts.

“COVID-19 continues to shock me with the devastation it has had on all sectors of the world, and it really is impacting everyone in some capacity,” 2020 grad Mallory Cunnington says. “Infectious disease has increased the types of vulnerable people we need to consider.”

Cunnington says she remembers learning about multi-stakeholder environments and trying to ensure all needs are met, while balancing proper and sustainable response and recovery her first-year residency in the MADEM program. She believes a key finding during the crisis has been the need for a focus on how we can build back better post pandemic.

The theme of building a better world post-pandemic is echoed by MADEM Program Head Jean Slick.

“We have the opportunity to improve how we live and work and perhaps we are more flexible to working from home during illnesses, as a simple example,” says Slick. “Responding to crisis and disaster events, such as the current pandemic, requires a whole of society approach.”