June 9, 2021

Ready to launch: Social Work and Disaster Network

New initiative co-led by UCalgary's Julie Drolet connects and co-ordinates social workers' disaster response
A flooded street in lower Bridgeland in N.E. Calgary, 2013.
A flooded street in lower Bridgeland in N.E. Calgary, 2013. Zoltan Varadi

When the water finally receded following the 2013 Calgary flood, it laid bare scenes of devastated residential neighbourhoods and fractured civic infrastructure.

For Bonnie Lewin, an emergency social services planner with the City of Calgary, the event also exposed the need to bring social workers to the fore in emergency management and disaster recovery scenarios, and to provide them with the necessary training to do so.

“We evacuated 80,000 people in Calgary, and we opened 14 reception centres — that's a lot of locations with a minimum crew of people trained in how to respond to disasters and support the citizens,” she says, adding that, "overwhelmed, the city reached for additional support from a volunteer organization whose members had little background in dealing with disaster."

Photograph of Dr. Julie Drolet, PhD

SWAD co-chair Julie Drolet.

Equipping social workers and social service practitioners with better training, improved co-ordination and increased capacity in disaster events are among the aims of the new Alberta Social Work and Disaster (SWAD) Network, an initiative co-led by Lewin and Faculty of Social Work professor Julie Drolet. Launching on June 22, SWAD will help social workers and other social service professionals to create connections and learn from each other’s experiences.

Drolet says the idea for the network has been “percolating” for some time. In addition to drawing on Lewin’s flood experience, Drolet conducted intensive research on the role of social workers involved in recovery efforts following the 2016 Alberta wildfire, which tore through 1.4 million acres of land and caused nearly $10 billion in damages.

Drolet’s findings affirmed Lewin’s call for better preparedness and also revealed the need to refocus the role of social workers beyond merely providing short-term assistance. To do this, she says, we need to look further than the economic impacts of these events and  consider the psychosocial ramifications on individuals in affected areas.

“A lot of the work that social workers do in disasters is often invisible or misunderstood or overlooked by those in emergency management,” she says. “We’re really trying to show that the social dimensions of disasters are just as important as the economic dimensions, and we really need to be thinking about how we take care of people in communities. [Addressing] mental health needs — the kind of challenges people experience in having to rebuild their lives after a disaster event — is a very significant part of what we're doing.”

Featuring speakers from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and India, SWAD’s launch event will serve as an opportunity to address issues of perception, preparedness and much more.  As both Lewin and Drolet point out, since natural disasters — fuelled in part by climate change — are increasingly part of our “new normal,” the time is ripe for this initiative.

“This network will provide training opportunities that should really strengthen social worker’s response during Alberta’s next disaster,” says Lewin.

Please join co-chairs Bonnie Lewin and Julie Drolet for the launch of the Alberta Social Work and Disaster Network on Tuesday, June 22 at 10 a.m. More information and registration available here.