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Flash Point – December 2012

Somewhere between 72 hours and 72,000 years, there is a lesson to be learned.

In his From the Floor blog at www.firefightingincanada.com on Nov. 5, Jay Shaw questioned whether the emphasis on 72-hour preparedness for disaster recovery is appropriate, given the protracted timelines in the response to victims of Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the floods in recent years in Manitoba and Quebec.

November 23, 2012
By Peter Sells

Topics

Somewhere between 72 hours and 72,000 years, there is a lesson to be learned.

In his From the Floor blog at www.firefightingincanada.com on Nov. 5, Jay Shaw questioned whether the emphasis on 72-hour preparedness for disaster recovery is appropriate, given the protracted timelines in the response to victims of Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the floods in recent years in Manitoba and Quebec. Shaw pointed to the New York borough of Staten Island, where stranded residents had been waiting for more than a week for assistance. I can’t argue with any of the points made by Shaw, but I would like to reframe his question, “Is the goal of 72-hour preparedness too lofty?” to “What is the appropriate preparedness goal for your community?”

I am fully confident that 72 hours is an appropriate preparedness level for my family in Mississauga, Ont. We could be snowed in for a few days, or be without electricity, or – perish the thought – have to survive without Internet or mobile phone service. We don’t live in a major seismic zone, on a floodplain, next to a mountain or at sea level. Big storms, warm or cold, will happen in southwestern Ontario but rarely without plenty of warning. Ironically, the biggest emergency in the history of this city, the 1979 train derailment, didn’t require anyone to hunker down for 72 hours – residents had to get out of town for up to a week.

There are three elements of personal responsibility that are crucial to preparedness: knowledge of the potential for emergencies in your community; awareness of what is happening or what is about to happen; and willingness to heed public warnings. My sister lives in a rural area in Maryland, on the Delmarva Peninsula. In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, she and her husband stocked up on supplies, gassed up the vehicles, cooked and stored a few days’ worth of meals that could be reheated on a camp stove, and kept an ear to the news. Their main concern was the possibility of sustained high winds. The family battened down everything and came out OK. In 1999, in the same general area, some friends of mine from the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute didn’t fare as well. Hurricane Dennis dealt a glancing blow to their waterfront property in Ocean City. The protective berms of sand on the beach did their jobs but, before the sand could be replaced, Hurricane Floyd swept in two weeks later and sent my friends’ deck and patio furniture to Portugal.

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Location, location, location; that’s what they tell us about real estate. Major hurricanes struck hard in the New York City area in 1788, 1821, 1894, 1944 and 1954. The 1938 Long Island Express damaged or destroyed more than 57,000 homes and killed more than 680 people. I don’t mean to be callous, but the residents who did not evacuate Staten Island have no business complaining about the timeliness of any response. Urban planners and political decision makers have to bear some of the responsibility for placing huge populations at risk. Using Katrina as an example, the only thing more foolish than building a major city below sea level, in between a large lake and one of the world’s great rivers, would be rebuilding the same city in the same place. Getting away from the coast for a minute, the same principles apply to wildfire. Jerome Harvey was deputy chief of a small city in South Dakota before taking a position with the Georgia Forestry Commission. Harvey, who knows more about the wildland interface than anyone else I have met, put the issue of development encroaching on wildland this way: “If it wasn’t safe for my grandfather to build there, why is it safe for me to build there?”

Even if you don’t see a Canadian parallel in the tropical cyclone examples, Harvey’s wildfire perspective should demonstrate that urban planning is a factor in emergency preparedness in this country as well. Moose Jaw, Sask., is susceptible to tornados; Moose Factory, Ont., is only accessible by helicopter during the autumn freeze and the spring break-up, when the river is not traversable by canoe or car. The Cascadia subduction zone will once again generate a tsunami and inundate British Columbia’s lower mainland and the U.S. northwest, just as it has every few centuries, with the last event in January 1700. Plan, build and prepare accordingly.

Whether it’s 72 hours, two weeks, or head for the hills, indefinitely, be aware and be ready. Geological and genetic evidence suggests that an eruption of the supervolcano that created the Lake Toba caldera in Indonesia about 72,000 years ago reduced the worldwide human population to as few as 7,000 individuals.

Think of it this way: the lines at the gas station would be shorter.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo


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