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Co-ordinated response

Emergency drills and thick presence prove effective and efficient in wake of Vaughan tornado

Written by Laura King   
Fire Chief Greg Senay’s best advice for departments responding to emergencies like the tornado that ripped through the City of Vaughan on Aug. 20, 2009, is simple. “Boots on the ground,” he says. “Keep the boots on the ground.”

The tornado bounced through suburban Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, on a muggy summer evening, touching down four times. It left a swath of destruction, hundreds of terrified residents and a major response for Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service.
CS1
The tornado that touched down in four neighbourhoods destroyed 44 homes and damaged 600.

“We had people out there,” Senay says. “We worked with residents, talked to them. The fire trucks were there. Our perception was that that’s what the people wanted. There is great value to that, about being in control of a situation and doing that from the get go.”

Besides opening the emergency operations centre within half an hour of the first 911 calls, Senay and Emergency Planning Manager Sharon Walker say training exercises and keeping firefighters in the streets were key to the co-ordinated response. 

Although there were no fires, Vaughan firefighters were the first responders to the tornado sites and maintained a presence in the streets, securing buildings and doing door-to-door searches for people and pets. They talked to residents and quickly evaluated needs.

For example, the city’s building inspectors, who determined the day after the tornado that 44 homes were not livable, were signing off at the end of their shifts, leaving residents angry and confused about next steps. Firefighters recognized the need for better communication and officers worked with the city to have building inspectors more readily accessible to residents.

CS2  
Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service kept its firefighters in the streets, helping residents, after a tornado blew through the city north of Toronto on Aug. 20, 2009.
 
According to Environment Canada, 19 tornadoes occurred in Ontario on Aug. 20, 2009, a Canadian record. The Vaughan tornado, an F2, produced winds between 181 and 252 kilometres an hour. More than 600 homes were damaged and an elementary school needed $2.5 million in repairs. The city spent $730,000 on repairs – all at taxpayers’ expense because the province declined to provide for disaster relief.

In the hour after the tornado first touched down at 1815, Vaughan Fire received 74 calls — more than double the daily average. Many were medical calls. The only serious injury was to a senior who had broken his hip. Unbeknownst to Vaughan Fire, York Region EMS had put out a so-called all-stop order and did not respond to calls for 60 minutes after the tornado struck. The injured senior waited 20 minutes for firefighters to respond after Vaughan Fire learned that no ambulance had shown up.

Walker says the decision to activate the EOC contributed to the seamless response despite some minor communications glitches (see page 66 of the Decade of Disaster supplement.)

Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Duncan called Walker immediately after the tornado first touched down. Some emergency personnel initially had difficulty making their way back to the EOC in traffic but by 1845 the centre was open and by 2000 it was fully staffed.

With mutual aid helping to cover three Vaughan stations, VFRS staffed the response from among its own ranks and responded to all four tornado sites.
  • 1815 – Storm passes with confirmed F2 tornado touchdown in Andrew Park. Senior command officers/manager of emergency planning notified and requested to report for duty; command officers dispersed to four disaster sites, fire communications centre and EOC. Unified command established at site No. 1  – Andrew Park.
  • 1819 – Crews arrive at Andrew Park and identify numerous damaged homes (roofs missing), gas leaks and hydro concerns; performed house-to-house searches for victims and hazards; evacuated residents from unsafe homes; four engine companies, Command chief 73 and VFRS mobile command on site.
  • 1821 – Confirmation of tornado touchdown at Houston Road/Moonstone Place.
  • 1830 – Confirmation of tornado touchdown at Islington Avenue/Gamble Street. Crews arrive at 1835 and identify homes with damaged roofs;  damage not as significant as other sites. Crews searched the area and rendered assistance as needed. Area secured and stabilized by one engine company.
  • 1840 – Arrival of tornado at Jane Street and Cunningham Drive. Crews arrive at 1845 and identify numerous damaged homes plus gas leaks and hydro concerns. Performed searches for victims and hazards. Evacuated residents from unsafe homes. Five engine companies and one chief officer 73B on scene.
  • 1843 - Crew arrive at Houston Road/Moonstone Place and identify numerous damaged homes, gas leaks and hydro concerns, performed searches for victims and hazards; evacuated victims from unsafe homes; two engine companies and command chief 75 on site.
As part of the co-ordinated response, York Regional Police maintained security at the tornado sites until Aug. 23, and provided investigation services and a mobile command post. City departments cleaned debris off streets, added daily garbage pickups in affected areas and removed damaged trees. The Insurance Bureau of Canada set up booths at a community centre.

Because the tornado struck when many daytime fire personnel were on their way home and at a shift change for others, Senay was the first fire officer to arrive at the EOC. The need to declare a state of emergency, he says, was clear to him but policies dictated that other EOC personnel needed confirmation of certain criteria. The state of emergency was called at 2138.

Meantime, other fire personnel – some who were off duty but had expertise in communications, for example – came in on their own and pitched in.

“You’ve got considerable damage,” Senay said. “People were out of their homes. There was total destruction. The whole thing for us was control and having the people on the ground. It was a comfort level for people whose dwellings had been damaged; they need to  see that control.

“When things stabilized we didn’t send the trucks back to the station – we had firefighters go get meds for people or papers they needed. The citizens out there wanted a representative of the city to go and address all their needs. We did not move our people off the streets. They stayed out there all night and into the next day. They provided a level of calmness straight away and a level of control.”

As for the smooth running of the EOC, Senay said: “We’ve done so many exercises that it didn’t take long for the group to meld together and start working together and take control.”

Walker says there were few injuries because so many residents in the Italian community were in basement kitchens when the tornado hit and were therefore protected from debris. In addition, she says, neighbours provided food and shelter. Indeed, community shelters turned out to be unnecessary.

One major change as a result of the tornado is Environment Canada’s effort to implement a new weather warning system. In August 2009, Walker says, Environment Canada had no weather warning system for Vaughan; emergency planners had to watch the weather for nearby Brampton. Now, Vaughan is set up on a text-message warning system but Walker’s persistence has helped to set in motion a review of Environment Canada’s weather warning system.

There were some other lessons learned.
  • Have more than one cell phone carrier in case one fails.
  • Ensure cell phone and laptop chargers are available.
  • Include building inspectors in the emergency plan.
  • Document all EOC meetings and briefings – Vaughan has since trained more personnel to be scribes.
  • Ensure permanent computers in the EOC – Vaughan has received a JEPP grant to buy permanent computers. 
  • Manage offers of help – do not allow unsolicited offers of help (i.e., arborists, building materials).
As Chief Senay told Yorkregion.com in a one-year anniversary story, the municipality is well prepared is for a disaster.

“We certainly confirmed for us, as professionals, that we’re well equipped and quite capable of handling the larger scale events. One of the other things that was confirmed was just the value of practising emergency response activities. This city is pretty aggressive in emergency planning.”