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Fire Fighting in Canada’s 2022 Virtual Summit focused on climate change

February 28, 2022
By FFIC Staff

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Feb. 28 – Fire fighting personnel from Canada and beyond gathered to hear the challenges and solutions Canadian fire departments are facing when it comes to preparing for and responding to climate change. The summit was held virtually on Feb. 24 and featured three live and three sponsored presentations.

The first panel was on the topic of emergency preparedness and extreme weather. Fire Chief Tom DeSorcy of Hope. B.C. moderated and the panel discussion between himself and fire chiefs Kirk Hughes of Vermilion County, Alta., Larry Watkinson of Penticton, B.C., and Sherry L. Colford of St. John’s Regional Fire Department. The discussion centered around developing response plans, how to handle your resources and preparing your department and your community to do their job in the face of weather events.

The group discussed the importance of mutual aid partners when it comes to handling natural disasters. Hughes asked, “why handle disasters individually when you can handle them together and build resources?”

DeSorcy noted that what happens outside your community, is likely to impact inside of your community and asked the other panelists what it is that they do to try and mitigate the risks associated with climate disasters. The number one answer? Be prepared.

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Watkinson shared that in Penticton they have identified specific weather events that are most common to their region, namely wildfires and heat domes, and have specific plans prepared for these incidents. He notes that while having all-hazards plans in place are important, it is equally as important to adapt those plans to things you know regularly impact your community.

Colford noted that no one can be a subject expert in everything, so to ask for aid when you need it. St. John’s Regional Fire Department is on Newfoundland and Labrador’s emergency operational list, which gives them access to meteorologist reports. These reports help them to watch weather patterns as far as a year ahead.

Hughes recommendation is to better support for response teams and their families. There is a lot of concern for how weather events will impact the community, and firefighters are a part of that community.

The general consensus from the panelists is that learning how to streamline resources, and be prepared ahead of time, to the best of your abilities, will help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Scott Davis, the manager of Emergency Management and Continuity of Operations at Western University and director of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) – Canada Council, gave his presentation on incident command and decision making during large scale events.

Davis’ presentation focused on five key factors of response and decision making: organizational readiness, planning and training, situational awareness, response and recovery and lessons identified.

He used the example of the 2020 Fort McMurry flood to show the timeline of decisions and response.

Davis encouraged four key things to happen before an event happens; understand what is coming, evaluate the potential risks (risk matrix), have a pre-incident plan prepared and identify who each section of the incident command teams will be reporting to.

Understanding what is going on ahead of the event will give your department time to call on experts, and to better understand the best ways to dealing with the incoming event.

Your pre-incident plan will act as a baseline for response, and will help prevent confusion as to who is doing what and who is reporting to who. It will also allow time to establish social service programs.

Using a risk matrix, which is evaluating potential risk, and their hierarchy will help in establishing and providing the community with community emergency management plan. This plan will help the community do their part so emergency response can be focused on helping vulnerable bodies. During the Fort McMurray flood, first responders used a pre-established vulnerable persons registry to account for and help to get those who need assistance to safety.

Davis said there were three major takeaways from the Fort McMurray flood in 2020, namely understanding hazard and impact, establishing and maintaining lines of communication and making use every one on the response team understands their role.

The final presentation of the day was Fire Chief Jeff Weber of the Cornwall Fire Department in Ontario. Weber spoke on managing expectations with council, community and industry with an additional focus on  the collaboration between agencies.

Weber explained that the effects of emergencies on communities is, obviously, incredibly disruptive, and it continues to be disruptive if there is not effective communication between agencies as to how to deal with them.

It all comes down to how each party goes into emergency management.

Being realistic, anticipating problems, accepting different perspectives and understanding boundaries are all things that need to be considered when managing expectations during collaboration.

Being realistic will help to keep frustration levels down. Weber said to consider the size of the event, what a typical budget would be and to communicate your needs based on what is in the realm of possibility.

Anticipating problems is something emergency responders have to do, said Weber. Consider what has gone wrong before, and anticipate that it could go wrong again. Having a baseline idea of how to fix these problems will help you to minimize further damage.

Accept and engage different perspectives and understand boundaries, recommends Weber. A willingness to see things differently will not only provide your department with more information, it will also help you to establish good lines of communication. While communicating with communities and other departments can be a great help, it is important to establish secure lines of communication, and to be clear with what can and cannot be shared.

Weber reiterates a point that has been common throughout the Fire Fighting in Canada Virtual Summit: don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whether in mutual aid, in your own department or from the communities you serve, emergency response impacts us all, so we should all play a role in its mitigation.

The day also features three sponsored presentations from Vector Solutions on training solutions, DLAN emergency software and FireRein, makers of their 100 per cent biodegradable Eco-Gel. The Fire Fighting in Canada Virtual Summit offered a number of takeaways to help the fire service to understand its challenges and develop its response to the ongoing threats created by climate change.