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‘Call a friend’: Q&A with IAEM Canada president Sam Roberts

IAEM Canada’s newly acclaimed president Sam Roberts shares his vision for the association, and talks about the evolving profession of emergency management.

July 11, 2023 
By Maria Church


OPS SIS

Sam Roberts’ resume has a few curveballs. The 26-year police officer spent a handful of years with the Canadian Navy as a mechanical engineer, and another handful as a commercial pilot.

The last nine have been in emergency management, and he currently heads up that file for the Ottawa Police Service as emergency management co-ordinator. Roberts holds bachelors in policing and a masters in emergency management.

In June, Roberts was acclaimed as the president of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Canada Council. He spoke with Avert about his goals for the presidency and his thoughts on the evolving emergency management profession in Canada.

Avert: What is your emergency services background, and what led you to emergency management?

Roberts: I’ve got a checkered past. I spent a few years in the Navy and my background is mechanical engineering. I left the navy to become a police officer and worked with the Cornwall police and then eventually with the Ottawa police service.

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Somewhere in there I had a mid-life crisis and an opportunity to try something new and became an airline pilot. I went down to the Caribbean and flew commercially down there. Came back to North America and flew with Porter for a few years. Flying was a lot of fun, but I missed the deep-brain, taxing stuff. I left aviation and went back to policing.

In my policing career I’ve done general patrol, aerial surveillance, tactical response – I was a founding member of the Cornwall emergency response team – I spent 12 years as a forensic investigator with the Ottawa Police. Eventually I got into emergency management from my time in the forensic section. I’ve been in that role for close to 10 years now.

The major incident when I started was the 2014 lone-wolf attack that happened on Parliament Hill. I was involved in our departmental emergency operations centre. Police were a conduit to the city. There was a lot happening.

Pick a disaster – floods, tornados, convoys – I’m the point of contact for anything emergency related to the City of Ottawa, working hand-in-hand with the Office of Emergency Management, which is the City of Ottawa department. When the police need resources, it comes through me. When the city needs policing resources, it comes through me, and I try to make all that happen.

Avert: How long have you been involved with the IAEM?

Roberts: I’ve been a member of IAEM since around 2014, the same time as I got into emergency management. I ended up as a member of the marketing and communication directorate. Eventually I became the director of marketing and communications and held that for a couple years.

I was asked if I would take on the vice-president position and I did that for a couple years. As you move up in the organization, you start to see the inner workings and the connection you have with global, which is IAEM over in the states.

I was recently acclaimed as the president. I’m going to hold this position for the next two years and see what kind of headway I can make and more forward with the IAEM Canada Council.

Avert: What are your goals going into your presidency with the IAEM Canada Council?

Roberts: Heading into the presidency, I look back on the things that I wanted to see when I joined. A lot of it was around communication. There are strict rules around reaching out to the membership, which global manages. All of our membership is held by global, and for security reasons that makes sense. But I want to make sure we reach out to our members to make sure that they know that we’re here to work with them, for them, and promote them.

Above all we want to promote emergency management as a profession. There are lots of things within emergency management – risk management, exercise design, business continuity – all of these pieces come together under the umbrella. I want to make sure organizations understand that emergency managers aren’t people who work and sit behind a glass door and when bad things happen, you run over and break the glass and let them out to do their thing. They’re planners. They’re operators. They have a lot of knowledge, skills and experience to help whatever the organization, and they should be at the table when decisions are being made. I want to make sure we promote that.

Avert: What are some priorities of IAEM Canada identified at the June AGM?

Roberts: We want the membership to know what’s going on throughout the year. We’re going to revive a communique specific to the Canada Council that fell by the wayside mainly because of covid and that response. We’re encouraging membership to look to the IAEM bulletin that comes out often – there’s lots of really good information. We want to have that open-door policy so that our membership has an opportunity to reach out.

Whenever there’s an emergency, regardless of what it is, you are never alone. You’ll always have the opportunity to pick up the phone and call a friend.

If you have to develop an exercise, you’re not alone. If you have to develop a pandemic plan, you’re not alone. Somebody else has already done that and they will help you.

Avert: How would you characterize the emergency manager profession in Canada today?

Roberts: It used to be just a job that someone did off the side of their desk. But recent issues have identified the need to have somebody specifically skilled for this job. There are a lot of pieces and moving parts to a response like the wildfires right now or the convoy in Ottawa.

Covid really gave emergency management a huge shot in the arm. People had no idea what was happening and all of a sudden the emergency manager put their hand up and said, ‘Yes, we’ve got a pandemic plan. Let’s follow this.’ That was my experience and we managed to go through it.

I also teach emergency management at Algonquin College as part of their program. I’ve been there for close to nine years. Initially I was seeing kids coming out of high school in it. I’m now seeing people looking for a career change, and not just people coming out of the military. I’ve had people tell me they’re looking to try it out because it looks exciting. I think that’s a great opportunity because you’re bringing in people who have life skills and knowledge, and they’re bringing that to this profession. They come in with new ideas and new approaches.

No two emergencies are the same so to have someone come in with a new approach is fantastic.

Avert: What’s a message you would like to share with new entrants to the world of emergency management?

Roberts: A lot of people think the profession is just writing plans. It’s much more than that. When big events happen, it could be something as simple as a community with a boil water advisory, having an emergency manager involved is very important.

Wherever you come from, your knowledge, your skills, your abilities are always accepted and you should never feel that your role is to come in and sit in the corner and say nothing.

Coming into this field, regardless of your background, you bring a certain level of knowledge, skills and abilities that the average person may not have. I’m not the smartest person in the room; my job is to make sure all of the tasks are completed. If I’m not doing it right or if I’m not moving in the best direction and you have an idea, I want to know. We want to make sure we’re doing things efficiently and safely for all of our responders.

Get involved. I ended up here because I spoke to a colleague and asked to learn more. Initially he said, ‘Be careful what you wish for and now I’m the president!’ But we’ve got lots of committees within IAEM Canada: governance, partnership engagement, marketing and communications. There is lots to get involved with, right down to our conference planning. You make connections and friends that will help you and stay with you in years to come.

And you’ll always have an opportunity to call a friend. When really crazy things are happening – and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things – the stress level isn’t going to knock you off your chair. You’ll be able to take a step back, see the 10,000-foot view, know who you’re going to call, and fall back on the experiences that you may have from getting involved in this profession.

This Q&A is edited for clarity and length.


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