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Bridging the Gap: Policy with teeth

We are relying on our emergency management policymakers to lead change in the age of uncertainty, writes Simon Wells.

January 16, 2023 
By Simon Wells



In my first column under the “Bridging the Gap” theme, I made a call to action to scholars, to practitioners, and to policymakers. For policymakers, I challenged them to “write policy that has teeth.” I described a national policymaker who is tech savvy, and perhaps is someone who has their finger on the pulse of the latest industry practices and strategies.

In this column, I want to challenge policymakers to write policy that answers the question, “So what?” Why should emergency managers or their leaders care about the policy? What do they do as a result of it? What is the practical outcome of the policy? I think policymakers want to write this kind of policy and have their perspectives and their work actively incorporated into emergency management doctrine, plans, and response activities.

I often point to the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030, as an example of a challenging policy to work with. Its priorities are important and its objectives seem clearly laid out. But at their heart, are the objectives really showing policy leadership? For example, “Priority 1: Understanding disaster risk” suggests national and local-level objectives such as paragraph 24(f):

“To promote real time access to reliable data, make use of space and in situ information, including geographic information systems (GIS), and use information and communications technology innovations to enhance measurement tools and the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data.”

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This sounds like an innovation-focused objective, but when we step back and really interrogate it, isn’t it a bit redundant? Haven’t we been using GIS and other software systems in our field for a couple of decades now? There is value in setting a priority and objective for the purpose of normalizing a practice, but what would this look like if it had the teeth we want to give it?

Perhaps the objective would include a leading indicator, so that even industry leaders and Global North countries are forced to take action to increase the chances of achieving an outcome. Alternately, a lagging indicator could be used as a test of whether or not important actions have already been taken.

For example, paragraph 24(f) could be written with a leading indicator like this:

“To promote real time access to reliable data, facilitate access to a common geographic information system (GIS) data repository of disaster risk data, and use information and communications technology innovations…”

The difference is subtle, but significant. Instead of simply “making use” of GIS, which we already do, there is an intrinsic responsibility to provide robust data to support disaster risk reduction and make it available to other policymakers and practitioners in the national or local level.

Using a lagging indicator in paragraph 24(f) could look like this:

“To promote real time access to reliable data, such that 75 per cent of all strategic emergency management plans include geographic information system (GIS) spatial analyses of the risk environment, and use information and communications technology innovations…”

There’s a lot of work implied in that indicator, but how beneficial would it be to see a geospatial analysis of our risk environment in all of our plans? There are countless other policy applications too. And this is just one paragraph picked out of a globally recognized document for a thought exercise. The point remains.

Luckily, here in Canada we have policymakers who take the Sendai Framework a step further. The Emergency Management Strategy for Canada: Toward a Resilient 2030 very clearly amplifies Sendai’s priorities and brings them into the Canadian context. It uses action phrases, like “foster the development of new capabilities” in Priority 4, or “implement all-hazards public awareness methods” in the outcomes for Priority 2.

So how do we get there? There are a number of policy development processes and frameworks out there. Which one a policymaker chooses is up to them, based on their preferences and what best suits the problems they are trying to solve. Policymakers need to ensure that a fair portion of the stakeholders they consult are practitioners, and that their words have heavy weighting.

Finally, the policies that they produce need to be enforceable, accountable, and specific. We need to outline who is specifically responsible for what outcomes, and build in mechanisms that allow us to make those things happen.

None of this is easy. That’s why we choose the best and the brightest to develop policies for our communities, provinces and territories, and our country. We are relying on our EM policymakers to lead change in the age of uncertainty.


Simon Wells is the principal of the Canadian Journal of Emergency Management. He has emergency management operations and program experience at multiple levels of government and holds multiple certifications and degrees. Simon lives in Scarborough, Ont.


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