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Lessons learned: a preview of the World Conference on Disaster Management

The G20 summit next month is unlikely to attract protests on the scale that disrupted other, recent world gatherings, says Ken Taylor, Canada’s former ambassador to Iran.


May 11, 2010
By Linda Johnson


Topics

Taylor, who was thrust into the international limelight after he helped
six American diplomats escape from Tehran during the Iranian hostage
crisis in 1980, will be giving the final address at the World
Conference on Disaster Management
, to be held June 6”“9.

The trade issues that sparked demonstrations in cities like Seattle and
Genoa have largely been replaced by regional or national disputes,
Taylor says, pointing to the current unrest over the debt crisis in
Greece. Even one of the most difficult and often violent political
issues of our time, the Middle East, has not polarized public opinion
as much, for example, as did the war in Vietnam.

“I don’t sense that there’s going to be the same degree of public
protest,” he said. “There just doesn’t seem to be the mood.” As well,
he adds, the protesters may not see the summit as the best place to get
their point across. “And I think they may wonder if, in the past, they
did in fact have any effect.”

This is a crucial year for the G20, Taylor says. The public is becoming
more doubtful that international meetings can accomplish anything,
especially after the disappointment of the Copenhagen conference on
climate change. But, because it is more representative than the G7 and
G8, many people still hope the G20 can make some headway.

“Unless the G20 comes up with something that is understandable to the
public, it will soon be viewed just as another meeting ”¦ with a
conclusion already written up before the meeting’s finished,” he says.

In his address, Taylor will speak on the nature of leadership in times
of crisis. While the sheer complexity of problems, technological change
and globalization have made it more difficult for leaders to take
decisive action, he says, it is still possible — as long as they have a
healthy dose of skepticism and self-confidence. And they need to have a
clear idea of what they want to achieve and be willing to make
decisions on their own.

“Oftentimes, the leader will have to be careful, keeping some part of
his intentions to himself, rather than reaching a so-called democratic
decision. Participation is fine, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.
It’s the same with public diplomacy, with respect to some negotiations
and discussions,” he says.

The conference, which is in its 20th year, brings together
international experts in fields ranging from public health to business
continuity to help businesses and communities better prepare for major
crises. There are some 80 seminars and workshops, covering topics such
as workplace violence, security at the 2010 Winter Olympics, pandemic
planning and lessons learned from the 2009 Australian bushfires.


Not enough businesses and organizations are aware of the need to
prepare for an emergency, says Chuck Wright, conference director. For
some businesses, creating an emergency plan is just another task, one
that is always being put off to a later date. Others will spend the
time and money devising a plan, only to file it away on a shelf and let
it collect dust. It is never updated, and the company never conducts a
drill to ensure employees know what to do. And many plans are just too
big.

“A lot of companies put together emergency plans in a three-inch
binder. They really need to bring it down so employees will look at it
and deal with it,” Wright says, adding a good plan can fit on a single
sheet of paper.
The conference is focusing this year on how businesses and
organizations can stay up and running through an emergency. Many small
and medium-sized companies struck with disaster go under within three
years because of the costs of stopping business, Wright says. The key
factor, he adds, is to make sure all employees are prepared, at the
office and at home, to keep working.

“If they’re personally prepared at home and their families are OK —
they may be able from a home computer to be linked up with work and be
on the Internet — they can still continue on doing business,” he says.

It’s also crucial to know exactly what the real risks are within your
environment. You may not be threatened by tornados or hurricanes, but a
blackout in the summer or a gas leak next door could shut you down for
several days. “So it’s really about digging into what you actually face
on any given day,” Wright says.

Many conference sessions focus on new technology and how it is taking
emergency management to new levels. For example, Michael Morrow,
president and CEO of EmergGeo Solutions Inc., will be speaking about an
integration system that connects information from first response
centres to the various public and private organizations that could be
affected by sudden emergencies.

“So it’s kind of an early warning situational awareness system that’s
captured a lot of attention,” says Morrow, whose Vancouver-based
company has implemented the new software — which includes mapping and
data fusion technologies — in the City of Vancouver’s emergency
operations centre. The system was also deployed as a pilot project at
the 2010 Winter Olympics.


The software takes emergency information from dispatch, looks for
critical infrastructure within the vicinity of the incident — a car
accident that closes down a main access route, for example, or a
chemical spill — and then sends out email alerts to all emergency
management staff subscribing to the system.

“And our system can automatically generate models that predict, based
on wind direction and speed, where that chemical might travel and
whether there are hospitals and schools that might need to be
evacuated,” Morrow says. “It gives them an early heads-up that this is
happening and it may affect you.”

A session on Immersive Simulation Technology is aimed at helping
emergency planners create the most appropriate and effective exercise
program for their situation. With the session leader, Darren Blackburn,
co-ordinator for exercise design at the Justice Institute of British
Columbia
(JIBC), participants will experiment with a range of
technologies, from the simple, such as Google Earth, to the highly
sophisticated, such as Depiction and other “serious games.”

“It’s GIS software,” he says. “It dynamically displays different types
of events as they unfold. For example, ”˜I want to see what a two-metre
flood would look like in my community,’ and it pulls all this GIS data
and shows you what the flood would look like as if you were looking
down on the map. It’s pretty cool.”

Another program puts the “player” at the scene and in charge of an
emergency, letting them see what happens as they dispatch fire engines
and decide where to concentrate resources.

“When we start getting into that type of simulation, it’s becoming very
realistic and very immersive,” Blackburn says, adding participants
become really engaged and can see the real consequences of their
decisions.

In another session, senior emergency managers will see how the
decisions they make during crises can have profound psychological
effects on both responding staff and the public. Studies have shown
that, because of time constraints and culture of emergency services,
such consequences rarely enter the decision-making process.
“If we’re sending someone to watch over dead bodies for 10 hours, what
is the implication of that psychologically?” says Laurie Pearce,
research associate at the JIBC.

“Because people don’t consider psycho-social consequences, they don’t
develop strategies to deal with it — which means that its members and
the public are exposed to more stress, more negative consequences, than
need be.”

Pearce is part of a $3.6-million, four-year research project at JIBC
that will develop exercises to learn how decisions at emergency
operations centres are made, to determine the most effective ways to
persuade managers of the need to take psychological consequences into
account and to come up with strategies that lessen those consequences.

The conference will present about 100 leading Canadian and world
experts and is expected to draw about 1,600 participants from 40
countries this year. It will be held at the Metro Toronto Convention
Centre.


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