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From the Floor


October 29, 2012
By Jay Shaw

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Oct. 29, 2012, Winnipeg - We’ve had a major disaster in Elliot Lake with a mall collapse. British Columbia has just been reminded of the seismic risks its faces, with a 7.7 magnitude quake that apparently did little in major damage. But the big one that is predicted to eventually strike the west coast is one day closer. And now, Southern Ontario needs to prepare for a possible weather bomb.

When a cold slow air front from the United States meets fast-moving hurricane Sandy over the coastal eastern states, you get a hurricane that stalls out, effectively weakening and moving very slowly.

This could mean sustained heavy rain and moderate to severe wind for days. Some weather forecasters are using terms I’ve never heard before to describe the potential for damage: epic, catastrophic, potential worst ever – are all terms being thrown around; and while I hesitate to support the news propaganda that perpetuates the cry-wolf response, I do believe the risk this time warrants a massive effort to prepare and inform people how to protect their families, homes and businesses.

As I write this, NYC is been ordered to evacuate low-lying areas of the city. Canadian weather officials are posting early warnings for Southern Ontario, and hopefully, firefighters across Ontario and eastern Canada are paying attention. I often wonder what I would do if I were on shift and a massive tornado touched down in my neighborhood, and I could not get in touch with my family to make sure they were safe: abandon ship and head for home to protect my wife and kids? Or stay the course, respond to calls and hope for the best? Tough choice.

Every bone in my body would say go, while my ethics and values would want me to perform my duties. You may remember that hundreds of New Orleans responders were fired for evacuating with their families. So here is a plan so you never have to make a choice that will put you in a really bad situation.

Firefighters can’t abandon ship; we can’t pack up and head inland like everyone else. So I hope you are getting your family prepared, making a communication plan, mapping out evacuation routes and getting your family out of harm’s way well before the first wind gusts arrive sometime late Monday night and Tuesday. Have a third party connection zone to relay messages, by getting your family to check in with Aunt sally in Saskatchewan rather than somewhere in Southern Ontario where power may be out for days; this way you will be able to make sure that all is fine, and your stress level will be lower knowing you have made the provisions for your family early.

Teach your family not only fire prevention and fire safety, but get the kids and family involved in preparing a 72-hour kit. Go to www.getprepared.gc.ca to get the details. When this storm is all over make a date to practice for a mock disaster – do one where you shelter in place and one where you evacuate to Aunt Sally’s, wherever she lives. Try making a day out of eating from your 72-hour kit. Canned foods, candles, radio for entertainment, you get the picture. Training at home or the hall makes for a better response.

The biggest threats that Ontario faces are land flooding from extended rainfall that can damage infrastructure. Power could go out for days or longer, roads could be washed out due to rain and flash flooding, sewer and drainage systems could be overloaded, wreacking havoc on fresh water supplies.

We can’t do our jobs if we are not prepared. That means making sure our loved ones are able to take care of themselves when we can’t. Take some time now and talk to your family about what to do if a disaster strikes and you have to respond. In the Winnipeg Fire Department our motto is “We hold thee safe.” That goes for us too!


Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department and is
completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at
Royal Roads University. Jay also works at the University of Manitoba as a
research assistant in the Disaster Research Institute. E-mail Jay at
jjrg@mymts.net.


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