Emergency Management Roundtable: Prioritizing resources, finding allies, setting goals
By Canadian Security StaffSecurity Resources emroundtable emergency management
Sponsored by Emergency Management Group and Base Camp Connect
For Darryl Culley, the pandemic revealed a basic truth about planning and preparing for disasters.
“We have short memories,” said Culley, president of the Emergency Management Group. “We — as a country, as communities — we focus on the pressing issues that are in front of us.”
Pandemic plans took centre stage in 2004 after SARS hit Ontario and British Columbia, he said. But as time went on, the urgency and focus faded. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, nearly two decades after the lessons of SARS, it felt like starting from scratch.
Culley’s comments came during a recent Canadian Security roundtable that brought together seven professionals for a wide-ranging conversation on the challenges facing emergency managers and how to best address them. The roundtable was sponsored by the Emergency Management Group and Base Camp Connect.
Steven Baxter, the continuity of operations and security co-ordinator for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, said some of the early warning signs around COVID were missed.
“A lot of the international monitoring systems had been cut back or eliminated,” he said. “We sort of missed the cues that should have been available to us to get a bit of an early start on this.”
In Canada, pandemic supplies had been “diminished or in some cases actually allowed to rot.” These issues were known, identified in auditor general reports, but nothing was done to address them.
“We have short memories. We — as a country, as communities — we focus on the pressing issues that are in front of us.” — Darryl Culley, Emergency Management Group
It underscored a need for emergency management professionals to take care of themselves, and not rely on higher levels of government to backstop supplies, said Baxter.
“You have to make sure that you have enough yourself,” he said, because as elections come and go, and budgets get trimmed, the collective memory will start to shorten again.
Michelle Wall, the City of Regina’s business continuity co-ordinator, said it requires an ongoing proactive approach. She pointed to some of the supply chain issues that were exposed during COVID.
“Have we really created more manufacturing jobs in this country and become less reliant on a supply chain that takes us out of our own country? There’s lots to learn and lots to document as we go forward,” said Wall.
An inflection point on mental health
A common theme during the discussion was resilience. Ian Foss, an instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Disaster and Emergency Management Program, said there needs to be a focus on wellness and mental health.
“We respond to wildfires and floods with as many hours as we can fit into a day,” said Foss. “That doesn’t work with a pandemic that goes 24/7/365 — and then multiple 365s.”
Fighting over the long haul is “something different” and not what professionals are used to, he said. First responders deal with a crisis for a day, or potentially a few weeks. But when the battle stretches into months and years, the emergency has in effect been normalized and systems aren’t set up to support people over a prolonged period.
“We face an inflection point,” he said.
Many professionals are their own worst enemies, working long hours, not exercising and eating junk food, added Foss.
“We respond to wildfires and floods with as many hours as we can fit into a day.” — Ian Foss, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology
Culley said some regions, particularly B.C., seem to be better at tackling the issue head on, with mental health professionals built into incident management systems.
“We all want to feel like we’re there to save the world, and that it’s not us that needs to be dealt with,” he said. “The only way of really getting people engaged in that is to already have it built into the structure.”
Prioritizing threats: Impact, not probability
It’s less important to examine the probability an event will occur and more useful to focus on its impact, said Baxter.
“The probability of planes flying into towers, the probability of war in Europe, the probability of a pandemic were all probably low on people’s radars right up until they happened,” he said. “And then they became catastrophic global events.”
Ensuring the right tools are in the chest, and that professionals know how to use them, can help prepare for almost any event, he said.
“You might not need all those tools in your tool chest every day. But if you’ve got them, and you’ve practiced them, they will all come together and work,” said Baxter. “If you don’t do that, you’re going to be in for a shock when the next big one hits that was low on your probability score.”
Francis Raveneau, vice-president of sales and marketing for Base Camp Connect, said there has been a noticeable acceleration in the number of events — and it has been skyrocketing since the 1970s.
“It’s not slowing down in any way,” he said, which means climate change needs to be institutionalized when it comes to providing funding for emergency preparedness.
“There are provinces still in Canada now that will get money if there’s an emergency, but the tap is going to be closed if it’s business as usual,” said Raveneau.
That can cause issues because, when the valves are opened during a crisis, material may not be available, or it might come in the form of equipment that nobody knows how to use properly.
“There’s a fundamental shift in how it’s being seen, and how it’s being funded. That needs to happen, because climate change is impacting, already, all of our jobs,” he said.
Building relationships is also important, according to Wall, so you know exactly who to call for help.
“Those relationships are invaluable,” she said. “When any of us reach out, we’ve got a really great supportive network there. We’re small, but we’re mighty.”
Technology: A double-edged sword
Carolyn Salem, team lead for emergency management at Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, said technology can be a double-edged sword.
Communicating with the public is critical during emergencies, and social media and online resources play a valuable role.
“That’s all wonderful for the tech age, for the people who are familiar with those systems and have the funds available to purchase tools that will allow them to access those systems,” she said.
But not everyone has a smartphone or computer, and some people want paper forms or to be able to talk to a live person on the phone, she said.
“If we’re not making sure that we’re reaching them, then all the technology in the world is not going to help us,” said Salem.
But innovation is showing up in other ways. Culley recalled the gas crisis of the 1970s, when cars were lined up for hours to fill their tanks as pumps ran dry. In response, speed limits were lowered and cars became more fuel efficient.
“We’re not producing any more gasoline than we were in the 1970s,” he said.
The same type of innovation arose during the pandemic, with the rapid development of mRNA vaccines.
“Vaccine development used to take 20 years, from the time it was conceptualized… to the final ability to put it out to people,” said Culley.
Technology and R&D tends to be expensive, though, which also means the investment doesn’t always happen until it’s driven by a crisis.
Funding, breaking down silos
Kim Olsen, the City of Regina’s manager of emergency preparedness, said the people holding the purse strings need to understand the issue better.
“We’re great when we’re needed, but otherwise we’re kind of put in the corner,” she said.
Sometimes, funding programs from the federal government just aren’t designed well, said Olsen.
For example, the federal government’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund had a $20 million threshold for applications when it launched.
“Well, nobody in Saskatchewan is doing a project worth $20 million. We’re so small, right? There’s no benefit to it,” she said. The program has since been revamped to accept applications as small as $1 million, said Olsen.
“But you’ve got to jump through hoops to get that funding,” she said. And even then, you have to get matching funds from local governments.
“We are preparing for the worst, and I think that always needs to be top of mind.” — Francis Raveneau, Base Camp Connect
Getting the public on the side of funding emergency management can make a big difference, said Salem.
“Emergency management funding will be cyclical, and it’s going to be focused on the disaster of the day,” she said. “It’s also pushed by public will.”
But there can also be better sharing of resources, she said.
“We still live in a world of silos, whether that’s within our own government organizations or the corporate world,” said Salem. “We’re still, lots of times, reinventing the wheel to suit our particular needs and within our particular context.”
For example, if you’re in government, collaborate across the different ministries to cost share a successful tool, she said.
“Likewise, when you go province to province, or even country to country, there are things that work really well that could be transferred over from one to the other, but yet we’re not talking to each other the way that we should,” said Salem.
One big takeaway from this conversation for emergency management professionals can be boiled down to two words: Be prepared.
“We are preparing for the worst, and I think that always needs to be top of mind,” said Raveneau.
Every disaster is a learning opportunity. Contrasting the pandemic response, for example, in Asia versus North America provides an interesting dichotomy.
“They were already prepared, they didn’t shut everything down, their economy was not completely struck out by what was happening,” he said. Many people in Asia wore masks when they didn’t feel well, even before COVID struck, he said.
About the Sponsors
Founder Darryl Culley, established the Emergency Management Group (formally known as Emergency Management and Training Inc.) in 1998. Darryl assembled a dedicated team of professionals to what EMG is known for today. EMG is recognized as a world leader in Strategic and Master Planning, and disaster readiness training.
In an evolving world where Coalition deployments are increasing, Base Camp Connect dedicates itself to simplifying multi-domain operations. Base Camp Connect manufactures and integrates voice, data & radio communication systems to interconnect disparate systems in a deployable format.
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