Editor's pick 2014: Mutual aid

Teamwork by agencies turns chaos into order in fewer than 100 hours
August 26, 2014
Written by Cynthia Ross Tustin
A class-F2 tornado touched down in Angus, Ont., on Tuesday, June 17, just after 5 p.m.  The force of the wind ripped the tops off homes and moved other houses three to four inches sideways on their foundations. The wind threw debris for kilometres; a Toronto Sun newspaper box was relocated to a ditch five kilometres to the east. Mail was found in farm fields six concessions away. Considering that it was dinner hour, and many people were in their homes, the fact that no one was seriously hurt is a miracle.

mutual aid  
 Volunteers assess the debris in Angus, Ont., after a tornado on June 17; 104 homes were damaged. Photo courtesy Environment Canada
 
What follows is an overview of how the aftermath of the tornado was handled from fire operations and emergency-management perspectives, and how the two systems worked together to produce order from chaos in fewer than 100 hours.

Angus is located in the Township of Essa in southwestern Ontario and is the largest urban centre within a municipality of 17,000 people. CFB Borden is on our western border and the City of Barrie lies to the east. We are served by a 58 highly dedicated volunteer firefighters from two stations: Station 2 is in Angus, and Station 1 is to the east, in Thornton. The only full-time fire personnel are the fire chief and administrative support. The fire chief has an additional role as the community emergency management co-ordinator (CEMC). Policing is provided through the province from the Nottawasaga detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). Emergency medical support is delivered from the County of Simcoe via Simcoe County Paramedic Services. Additionally, the County of Simcoe, as the upper tier regional government, provides services such as emergency social services and garbage pick-up, and maintains certain roads.

The tornado first touched down across the road from the high school in Angus and then bounced east, cutting a swath of damage through established neighbourhoods, rural farms, and businesses. The hardest-hit area was a newly constructed subdivision. The tornado’s destructive force took a path through the backyards of an entire block of homes. The homes on Banting Crescent and Stonemount Crescent, which back onto each other, took the brunt of the impact.

The 911 calls started before the tornado had even cleared the area. The call for the structural collapse of a home on Stonemount Crescent came in first, followed immediately by a call for a structural collapse of a home on Banting Crescent, with people trapped. After that it was a free for all; calls for 10 homes and then 45 homes came pouring in faster than anyone could respond. In all, 104 homes were hit in some fashion. On top of these calls came countless calls for wires down, which our dispatch – handled expertly by Barrie Fire and Emergency Services Communications – prioritized and stacked for mutual-aid departments to handle.

OPP Const. Kyle Kneeshaw was at a home on Stonemount Crescent for an unrelated issue when the tornado touched down. He noted the eerie silence and the green hue to the sky and told the person he was speaking with to get indoors and take cover. They both jumped into the house and before Kneeshaw could slam the door shut, winds making the noise of a freight train threw them both back three metres down the hall. That’s the way most residents describe the tornado: eerie silence followed by freight-train-sounding wind and then torrential rain.

Everyone responded – police, fire and EMS – and mutual aid was initiated. As the tornado was still ripping its way east, Station 1 crews were heading west through the storm at great peril. All emergency responders dodged debris, downed trees and live wires to aid those impacted.

Deputy Chief Doug Burgin ran the incident at the site (Banting and Stonemount crescents). He utilized a command structure with two sectors: Burgin ran overall command and the Banting Crescent side and Station 2 Chief Wally Ogilvie ran the Stonemount Crescent side. Crews from Stations 1 and 2, with the help of mutual-aid crews, completed primary and secondary searches of all 104 homes in less than two hours. Fire crews working in pairs rapidly evacuated residents to areas of refuge, turning off natural gas as they went. A simple spray-painted X on the front of a house indicated that it had been searched.

Simcoe County has a highly effective mutual-aid system. Compatible communications and seamless dispatching make this possible. Lesson learned: we could have used additional tactical channels but proximity and face-to-face reports kept this from becoming overly problematic. 

Mutual-aid crews from Springwater, New Tecumseth, Innisfil, Clearview, Collingwood and Barrie helped in various ways. These crews were part of the search-and-rescue teams, handled other calls for help in the municipality and provided coverage for both of our stations.

The incident commander had called at the outset for Hydro One and Enbridge (natural gas) to assist on site. Hydro was an issue because the services were all underground; the only live power that crews had to deal with was in the impacted homes – there were no overhead hydro hazards. But the power needed to be shut down home by home via the transformer vaults – a time-consuming task. Hydro staff worked tirelessly to isolate power to the affected homes for the safety of emergency workers but also keep the power on at the unaffected homes across the street.

While all that was going on, emergency-management systems were being established at the next level up to ensure that everyone had everything they needed to do their jobs. An overall command structure was set up for police, fire and EMS at the OPP satellite office (which happened to be at the high school in Angus). The Community Control Group (CCG) was convened and an emergency declaration was made verbally to the province through the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM). The CCG was a unified-command structure that initially comprised police, fire, and EMS: it grew to include the mayor and CAO, two councillors, a representative from roads/public works, an OPP staff sergeant and media liaison Const. Kelly Daniels, the chief building official, the county’s emergency management co-ordinator, and, later, an OFMEM rep.

The site was chosen for its proximity to the incident and access – it was not our emergency operations centre (EOC) nor was it the alternate EOC, but it was the best spot from which to work. Another lesson learned: an EOC and alternate EOC are required under the Ontario Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, but if the situation warrants a better location, use that.

The emergency was declared for two primary reasons: first, so that anyone who volunteered was covered for Workplace Safety and Insurance Board purposes; and second, we were fairly certain that the response and clean up would take time and strain our ability to maintain the continuity of operations. We briefed everyone on the status of the event, outlined the action plans for each group, and determined who could provide which resources.

The key to a quick and successful resolution, at least in my mind, was to keep everyone pushing the rock in the same direction at the same time. We agreed on all the usual CCG items such as scheduled briefings, locations and immediate next steps. That night, the first hours after the tornado, the priority was scene safety and security, and Hydro One’s ongoing efforts to get all the power switched off appropriately.

Three areas turned out to be significant in our handling of the aftermath of the tornado:
  • Media – We agreed from the outset that this was a municipal emergency and that messaging to the media would be controlled via Essa Township. This was never a sticking point due to our solid working relationship with the Nottawasaga OPP and because of the calibre and experience of OPP media liaison Const. Daniels.
  • Compassion – We agreed that compassion for those affected was an equal priority to safety. Studies from traumatic events show that when affected persons are dealt with compassionately, they recover faster.
  • Incident command – Incident command was easily implemented by emergency services but it was also inflicted on other agencies throughout the event.  More about this further down.  
■ Handling the media
We decided almost immediately on our media strategy; it was simply the same strategy we all use regularly. This was a municipally declared emergency and therefore media releases would be municipally controlled. Several things made this easy (easier). First, the fire department has always considered the local media to be allied agencies. Literally, they are set up in our email as “Allied Agencies” and when we send out anything, such as a photo of an MVC, it’s a one-button email/text. We are a very small department and in many respects, the local reporters are our public information officers.

bedroom  
Bedroom furniture sits untouched after the tornado pulled the top floor off a home.
 
When a tornado touches down, reporters will touch down a minute later, and with equal fervour. A reporter from the CTV affiliate in Barrie phoned me as I responded to the call. When I answered (using hands-free) the first question was “How can we help?” I confirmed our response and the generalities of the event, and the reporter told me what the satellite weather was tracking – the tornado, and its path. The reporter also told me where the tornado had started (Angus) and where it was headed. This was helpful for mutual-aid purposes – planning ahead.

We were very fortunate to have the OPP’s media liaison in our midst. Const. Daniels and I jointly wrote our media releases and agreed on the content. Then, I sent the releases to our township website to be uploaded, and Daniels sent them to media outlets. Later, thanks to the Simcoe County emergency manager, my emails started going to 211 – the government and community based health- and social-service line.  We used Twitter when possible, but we found it to be a challenge to maintain a social media feed. Lesson learned: a scribe, if available, could help with this.

The media strategy included speaking points for our mayor and councillors. At the end of every day, after we had gathered information from the final CCG meeting, Daniels and I pulled together the speaking points for councillors for early morning press conferences. That meant councillors were calling for the points and clarification at 4:45 a.m. In hindsight, there was probably a better way to do this, but during the event it was effective.

Daniels also set up and controlled all the press conferences, including the one on Friday, June 20, when Premier Kathleen Wynne visited.

In addition to the planned press conferences, CCG members all gave interviews constantly, or at least it felt like constantly. We used our own words, but no one waivered from the content of the prepared messages.

■ Resolving with compassion
Residents meetings were Daniels’ idea, and they worked out better than anyone could have hoped. Daniels brought the idea forward Tuesday evening at our first CCG meeting and the residents meetings became an integral part of our plan to deal with the aftermath of this event with compassion. The first meeting for affected residents was the next day – Wednesday – at the arena in Angus at 4 p.m. The arena filled up quickly and, as expected, there were a lot of “interested” people, but they weren’t all “affected.”  Daniels tactfully asked those people to leave. Reporters who stayed in the room were told there was to be no recording and no questions; the meeting was for the residents and their privacy was to be respected. Press conferences were held outside, afterwards.

The head table for the first meeting was rather full – the mayor and deputy mayor, MPP Jim Wilson and the representative for MP Kelly Leitch and all CCG members. After a short welcome from Mayor Terry Dowdall, we took questions. Lesson learned: prepare briefing notes that can be handed out to attendees. There would have been fewer questions had we each given an update and then answered questions. We never did have the time or resources to prepare the handouts, but we did open with individual briefs from that night forward.

On Wednesday, June 18, our chief building official, Heather Rutherford, and her staff marked the impacted homes with do-not-enter signs. Damage included everything from entire second storeys missing and objects impaled into interior walls to homes that had shifted on their foundations.

Several themes came out of the first residents meeting. First and foremost, people needed to check on pets and retrieve medication. Second, people were very concerned about the security of their homes and the items not just in them, but also strewn by the storm. Residents didn’t want just anybody going through the backyards and were concerned about who would decide what was debris and what was valuable. And of course, they wanted to know when they could return to their homes.

The residents meetings, while exhausting, became invaluable for planning purposes. During the first meeting, those who needed to retrieve pets or medicine were asked to leave their names and contact information at the front desk on the way out. Lesson learned: have a sign-in sheet in Excel so it can grow with the response to the incident. As soon as the meeting ended, a firefighter, an OPP officer and, when feasible, a building inspector met with homeowners at their homes. Within 90 minutes everyone on the list, and many others who had not been at the meeting, had their pets and medications.

From the beginning, security for the homes had been taken care of by the OPP, but after Wednesday’s meeting we took advantage of emergency generators that Simcoe County provided to add additional lighting at night as a reassurance.

Every meeting thereafter yielded good ideas from the residents.

The next priority was to get people back in care and control of their homes as soon as possible – this was so obvious, but not so easy.

The long row of backyards between Stonemount and Banting crescents, which came to be known as the alley, was full of debris and was still dangerous. Among the debris were people’s family heirlooms and prized possessions. The quick fix would have been to turn everything over to contractors for disposal but we had heard the residents’ concerns loudly and clearly, and, by Thursday’s residents meeting, we had a plan. We had also tweaked our messaging. Outsiders and some reporters started Thursday morning by referring to it as “Day 3” after the tornado. We made a conscious effort that morning to start referring to the aftermath in terms of hours; it was more accurate, and quite frankly, it sounded better. So when we opened our Thursday residents meeting, we thanked everyone for attending and for their patience at Hour 47. When people realized that it had been fewer than 48 hours since the tornado, it seemed to take a lot of edge off.

Earlier that day, several members of our CCG team met with Peter Karageorgos of the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) and IBC vice-president Ralph Columbo.  Karageorgos had arrived Wednesday to help connect homeowners with their insurers. At the end of Thursday’s meeting, we had a plan for the clean up of the alley that would address the concerns of the affected residents and safety.

The county emergency manager, Cathy Clark, had received an offer of clean-up assistance from a Mennonite group that does disaster relief. The county is responsible for waste and garbage, and arranged for massive dumpsters and disposal. We had developed the agreement with the IBC that any costs would be paid by the insurance companies, based on a mutually agreed-upon formula (total clean-up cost divided by total number of homes). Some insurance companies covered 30 homes, some covered six. Ensuring that the cost would not be divided by the total number of insurance companies made for equal billing. One massive clean up was much more expeditious than the piecemeal method that usually follows these types of incidents. The clean up would be done immediately and safely. No one would have any concern about the integrity and scrupulous reputation of the group heading the clean up. And financial issues were settled in advance and were never an issue.

Thursday’s residents meeting also laid out the four-step plan.
  • Step 1 (already complete) – scene safety/security and get pets and meds. 
  • Step 2 – site safety, clean up crew was coming the next day to remove debris from the alley. 
  • Step 3 – let adjusters onto properties for size-up from the outside so that homes could be boarded and enclosed/secured. 
  • Step 4 – get adjusters into the buildings.
Lesson learned: When laying out a step-by-step process to tired, anxious people, choose words carefully and don’t make the system sound so linear. Although steps two, three and four would happen almost concurrently, to residents it sounded as if it would take longer.

Most residents were happy with the plan but a few were extremely vocal about their displeasure. Daniels handled these people well. But more importantly, the other residents in the room shut these people down, and sometimes pretty abruptly.

At every meeting, press conference or interaction with residents we spoke in terms of “neighbours”, “us” and “we.” Never did we use the terms “you” or “them.” Residents caught on to this rapidly. Anyone at the meetings who was viewed as making personal demands that didn’t benefit the group were not tolerated.

There was a third group of people at these meetings – the folks who came forward with real ideas about helping and making our plan better for everyone. We made a point of working their input into our plans and always conveyed that at the next meeting. 

“Based on your input, we’ve gotten everyone’s pets and meds.” “Based on your input we’ve asked the Mennonites to be part of the recovery effort when it comes to sorting your personal items and broken construction materials,” and so on. 

We closed Thursday’s meeting by asking everyone to provide their adjusters’ names and contact information – which we added to the Excel spreadsheet – and asked residents to let their adjusters know there would be a meeting specifically for them Friday morning at 10:30.

At that meeting, we explained the plan for getting adjusters onto the properties and our safety requirements – work boots and hard hats – and introduced the adjusters to Rutherford, who explained that an engineer would be required to asses each home.

Rutherford’s team of local building officials had already met and strategized and were there to help her staff with the inspections. This first working-group meeting laid out the ground rules and the inspectors and adjusters formed a team rather than two sides. Rutherford had the advantage of knowing all the inspectors. The adjusters came together, facilitated by Karageorgos and an adjuster from State Farm. This approach to responding to a disaster was new and definitely not the way that these people were used to working; they seemed to appreciate the value of the system and quickly got on board. By 1 p.m. everyone in the working group was in the alley assessing the homes and they were done before 3 p.m. The plan was for the working group to meet again briefly the next morning so that other adjusters could understand their plan and fit seamlessly into the existing process.

What could we tell the affected residents at Friday’s 4 p.m./Hour 71 meeting?
  • That the premier had visited and the province was very supportive – for example, Premier Wynne ensured that the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) would be readily available to ensure rapid electrical inspections for those whose homes could be quickly repaired and reconnected.
  • That the clean up had begun and that the team in the alley was sorting broken construction materials into dumpsters and that all other items were neatly stacked on the individual lots, outside the back doors.
  • That the clean-up crew was so thorough the glass was being shop-vac’d out of the grass. 
  • That adjusters had been onto their properties and were working directly with the building department; and that boarding and securing their properties was underway.
The really great news came when the local Hydro One guys announced that they had mustered a crew of volunteers with bucket trucks to come and tarp the roofs of homes that were badly damaged and unsafe for construction crews. Those who wanted help from Hydro One were asked to put their names and addresses on the ever-expanding Excel spreadsheet at the front desk on their way out. Everyone left happy.

By 6 p.m./Hour 73, we knew we had a problem. The Mennonites were to come back in the morning with a larger group but no one knew how many people would show up. Earlier in the day, another local group had promised the assistance of about 200 volunteers to help with the clean up; by 6 p.m., none had arrived.

Simcoe County’s mutual-aid plan has many benefits, one of which is that local fire departments use what is essentially our version of crew-resource management to spool up or down based on emergency staffing needs. Throughout the event, either the county fire co-ordinator, or one of four deputy fire co-ordinators, was on scene, acting as scribe for me or acting operationally, ensuring overall coverage and resources for the deputy fire chief or station chiefs who were site managers. The fire co-ordinator for most of the time was Tony Van Dam, the fire chief from nearby Springwater Township. 

At 6 p.m. I turned to Van Dam and said, “Call the brothers.” His response was simply, “Don’t worry about it.” The co-ordinators, he said, had already discussed the situation and a mutual-aid call was going out within the hour for volunteer firefighters to help with the alley clean up. By 6:05 p.m., we no longer had a problem.

■ Incident command (and mutual aid) is for everyone
Disasters like this start as public-safety emergencies and require the extraordinary efforts of police, fire and EMS. However, the disaster never remains a public-safety emergency. Ice storms end up needing utilities people. Floods and mud slides end up needing the roads and public works teams. And the aftermath of a tornado ends up with the building department. Building officials are rarely included in emergency plans or emergency management, and they are never given incident-command training, let alone having their profession’s own mutual-aid contingency. 

As mentioned, we used a unified-command approach for all the emergency services, and mutual aid for fire-service purposes. The OPP had enough resources to staff needs internally. But our building department is a tiny, outstanding team of three. We’re used to command posts, sectoring and communication among groups from the outside that are brought together. But this was uncharted territory for building officials and insurance adjusters.

The second building/adjuster meeting had happened Saturday morning and the working group was out at the site. Fire had set up a command post for the inspectors on Banting Crescent. This gave Rutherford and her group of volunteer building officials – some from as far away as Kitchener – a place to work. Adjusters came to command post with their engineers and were assigned a building inspector so they could assess the buildings and expedite the process. To move things ahead faster, Rutherford accepted verbal reports from the insurance companies’ engineers. The engineers and the adjusters represent the homeowners. The engineers’ reports were necessary to determine which homes could be reoccupied immediately, which ones were safe for people to go into to retrieve belongings, and which homes were so unsafe that only trained contractors could enter. 

The command post and the command system allowed us to quickly develop and share communication. Homes basically had four conditions:
  1. Not yet assessed 
  2. Safe for the homeowner to reoccupy
  3. Safe for the homeowner to enter but not reoccupy
  4. Unsafe for the homeowner to enter
A placarding system for front doors was devised. Information about the conditions needed to be understood and conveyed to homeowners, adjusters and contractors.  Consistent wording was agreed upon. A sign board was made for the command post for those working on scene, then the information was put on the Essa Township website and 211, and distributed to the media. 

By the end of Saturday, the inspectors and adjusters had visited 85 per cent of the affected homes and were now in the care and control of the property owner’s insurance company. A few inspections remained because some homeowners had been on vacation during the tornado or because the adjusters didn’t have access to engineers on weekends.

Concurrent with the building inspections, the alley clean up was underway. Station 1 Chief Scott Ferguson was the alley boss. Ensuring the safety of all workers was a huge task. The site was dangerous – huge loaders were hauling the hand-sorted debris to industrial dumpsters; and the dumpsters were constantly filled and replaced. There were countless hazards – nails, broken glass, damaged propane tanks and three separate groups suddenly working together. Additionally, Ferguson considered the high heat, the need for substantial hydration and even the special dietary needs of the Mennonites.

Our deputy chief ran operations outside the alley. An accountability system had been set up to oversee the 120 volunteer firefighters who had answered the call for assistance; they were joined by several dozen members of nearby CFB Borden.

The clean up was completed and command was terminated by 1 p.m./Hour 92.

And that’s how you produce order from chaos in fewer than 100 hours.

There are too many details to totally recap this event. Suffice it to say that hundreds of people helped to make the clean up and recovery go smoothly, along with the implementation of some outside-the-box ideas, and a team with total dedication to the fundamental belief that compassion coupled with unified command is the best way to push the rock.

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