Gareth Birch

'Disasters are about much more than just the science behind the hazards...'

  • Gareth Birch

Master of Disaster Risk and Resilience

Emergency Management Advisor – Community Resilience, Canterbury Civil Defence Emergency Management Group

Being able to support disaster response in his role with Canterbury CDEM Group has given Gareth a whole new perspective and interest for community engagement.

After completing a Bachelor of Socio-Legal Studies, and working for a few years at the Aboriginal Heritage Office in Australia, Gareth and his partner decided to travel the world and find more opportunities for social change.

‘Spending some time in Nepal, where communities were recovering from a huge earthquake, planted the seed of disaster-related work, and arriving home we made the opportunity for a new chapter,’ he says. ‘Tempted by the amazing Southern Alps, an intriguing MDRR programme at UC, and the chance to live in a new town saw us packing our bags again, shipping off to Christchurch, and the rest is history.’

Canterbury itself was also a draw card for Gareth, as a fan of the great outdoors.

‘It was as much to do with the lifestyle in Canterbury as it was about the University itself,’ he says. ‘Being able to study somewhere so close to the mountains, ocean, skiing, riding, tramping – it’s something I absolutely relish and always look to make the most of.’

Gareth’s previous studies worked particularly well for the disaster management field, with more focus on a community-centred approach to disasters.

‘This course is not just for those with an academic or professional background in the sciences.  Disasters are about much more than just the science behind the hazards. In fact, having a background in the social sciences, project coordination, community development – any of these wonderful fields – will put you in great stead for the complex nature of disasters,’ he says.

The MDRR programme included fieldtrips and technical-skill building, and Gareth says he is ‘still good mates with the crew’.

‘I really, really enjoyed studying again – using my brain, critically examining complex challenges, and engaging with a really wide variety of issues and approaches.  After working full-time for a few years, I certainly didn’t take for granted the fact that postgrad studies are really just an opportunity to think about something new, every day,’ he says.

‘At the core of this degree programme is the acknowledgement that natural disasters are complex and that there is a variety of approaches and understanding regarding what can be done to reduce the impacts of these events. There is a really strong depth of theoretical material developed throughout the degree. There is also focus paid to key technical skills like using Arc GIS, undertaking quantitative risk assessments, and writing policy briefs. 

‘This balance between theory and application has proven very useful in my roles since studying – being faced with a problem, having some theories to make sense of it, and then having some tools to do something about it.’

As part of his studies, Gareth also took on an internship course with Canterbury CDEM Group, which he advises other students also experience to tie in their dissertation work.

‘It was a fantastic internship programme as it gave you real world perspective on the challenges faced by practitioners, looked good on the CV, provided impetus to refresh my CV, and honed interview skills.  It also provided a fantastic opportunity to form some professional networks that proved invaluable to getting a job straight after graduating.’

Following the MDRR, Gareth started his career as a Community Resilience Coordinator with Christchurch City Council.

His current work with the Canterbury CDEM Group focuses on approaches to community engagement with Emergency Management Officers from the Territorial Authorities in the region. This includes preparation for responses, recovery, and public education around emergencies.

‘I get to see how all the themes, topics and challenges I learnt about during my degree are applied in practice,’ he says. ‘I also enjoy the two aspects to the role – “peace time” preparation and reduction initiatives, as well as training for emergency response situations.’

He hopes to continue building strategies and understanding of community-resilience across Canterbury throughout his career in disaster management.

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