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Comment – December 2012

We didn’t plan to focus on emergency preparedness in this issue but a confluence of events made the topic an obvious choice.

November 22, 2012
By Laura King


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We didn’t plan to focus on emergency preparedness in this issue but a confluence of events made the topic an obvious choice.

In October, I sat in on a seminar in Burlington, Ont., called The Public Health of Emergency Preparedness, hosted by Public Safety 411 (www.publicsafety411.ca). The final presenter was Joe Scanlon, who has done considerable research on the role of ordinary people in mass-casualty disasters. Scanlon also happens to be the journalism professor who taught me to chase fire trucks and write news stories; he has since developed considerable expertise in emergency response. Scanlon’s story on page 28 about what the Amsterdam-Amstelland Fire Department is doing to incorporate ordinary people into disaster response is compelling.

Two weeks later, I was part of the media contingent at Huron Challenge IV – Exercise Trillium Resolve in Port Elgin and Saugeen Shores, Ont., a massive mock-disaster exercise that involved a tornado, a nuclear generating station, hundreds of responders, more than 50 agencies and about nine months of planning.

Reporters weren’t allowed near Bruce Power but we were given access to its new emergency operations centre and witnessed several evolutions in nearby municipalities by the Ontario Provincial Police special response teams and the Saugeen Shores Fire Department. Our story on page 10 focuses on the magnitude of the event, the response, and the lessons learned.

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Shortly thereafter, news of Hurricane Sandy hit. But before Sandy made landfall, my e-mail and Twitter feed lit up with news of the earthquake off the British Columbia coast. The next night on CBC’s The National, I watched Wendy Mesley quiz a provincial emergency response spokesperson about the delay in informing residents of a possible tsunami – almost an hour after U.S. authorities sent out their warning. At first, I was annoyed that Mesley didn’t have a better understanding of the protocol for such things, but I still haven’t seen a reasonable explanation for the less-than-rapid response; the standard line was that people in the quake zone knew to get to higher ground. Clearly there’s room for improvement.

Then came Sandy, the inability of responders to reach people in some areas within the 72 hours for which North Americans have been programmed to be self sufficient, and the ensuing head scratching over that message.

Interestingly, a Toronto Sun columnist ranted in the run-up to Hurricane Sandy about the Big Brother-like role of government agencies that tell people to evacuate or stock up on canned goods and batteries. The column was never posted online – likely for fear by editors that the ensuing barrage of vitriol from first responders would crash the system. 

As Peter Sells notes in his Flashpoint column on page 38, how anyone prepares for emergencies should depend on geography and common sense. We can’t make people buy batteries. But as the researchers in Amsterdam and the responders in Saugeen Shores know, responders can learn from their peers and continuously re-evaluate emergency plans. We hope this issue of Fire Fighting in Canada helps you do that.


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