Emergency management is a fast-growing profession in Canada, and those who excel at it typically bring a mix of know-how combined with emotional intelligence to the job. At its root, emergency management is about helping people in crisis, something that Mike O’Brien has decades of experience in doing.
Before enrolling at Sheridan in 2009, he spent 21 years in the Canadian Forces, serving with the Princess Patricias Light Infantry, which saw him deployed to Cyprus, Croatia and Bosnia. He was also sent to assist in the command post at domestic crises, including the Winnipeg flood of 1997 and the Quebec ice storm in 1998, two experiences which spurred his interest in his new-found career.
“When you go overseas or to any sort of disaster, you realize you can’t fix everything,” says O’Brien. “You’re a small piece, but your piece is significant because there are so many small pieces that must be dealt with. You can help the people who are in front of you right now.”
After graduating from Sheridan, he was hired by the City of Brantford as its Community Emergency Management Coordinator. In just over four years on the job, O’Brien had a tremendous impact on the city’s approach to emergency planning, transforming it from a traditional, silo-based approach to an Integrated Management System that brings together government departments with emergency responders, health care agencies, social services and other community stakeholders.
The aim is to build a culture of neighbours helping neighbours.
O’Brien took to same approach to his current position as Community Emergency Management Coordinator with the City of Burlington, a post he has held since January 2015. The first step was completing a hazardous risk assessment exercise, which included identifying those who would be most vulnerable in a time of emergency. “There are places in Burlington where there is a 30% poverty rate and a high number of seniors, and these are the people we have to worry about,” says O’Brien. “We have a finite number of first responders, so the aim is to build a culture of neighbours helping neighbours.”
As he moves forward, O’Brien will continue building on his extensive experience in helping others in crisis, as well as the foundation of knowledge he acquired at Sheridan, where, he says, “I learned all of the basics of emergency management that you don’t get in university. I was taught by industry practitioners who shared how it works in the real world.”
Mike O’Brien is a 2015 Ontario Premier’s Award nominee in the Community Services category. The Premier’s Awards honour one outstanding Ontario college graduate in each of six categories annually.