Emergency & disaster management
New frontiers in emergency management
By Vince Mackenzie
This is the 10th anniversary of my contributing to this column, and what a way to celebrate. I am writing this submission before my deadline in the third week of March. A global pandemic was officially called last week and as I write this, we are in Day 9 of pandemic response in my municipality. We are in the midst of taking extreme staffing measures to protect our workforce and preserve staff. Even though no one is sick yet in my town, we do this now for the impending future time when more isolation and sick time among our staff will affect our core essential services. The provinces are declaring states of emergency, businesses are being shut and our geographical borders restricted. I have just spent the entire past week as fire chief and emergency planning coordinator for my town in meetings at emergency operations and planning command posts and being the official liaison with our local health authorities.
All situations at present are very fluid and the situation is changing hourly. By the time you read this column, so much will have transpired with this pandemic outbreak in our country. Knowing that any tips and strategies I write today will be outdated by press time, it seems unwise to make the attempt. So let me share this with you instead.
Many chiefs and officers of fire departments, career or volunteer, are also the emergency managers in their respective communities. Especially challenging for small town Canada is the fact that the fire department is the community’s first responder for just about everything that goes wrong. Therefore, it is no surprise that firefighters are on the local organized frontline in this pandemic war. First responders are the first assault wave coordinating the response within our towns and villages. While this is a health emergency, this crisis will affect all aspects of daily life and capabilities of Canada’s fire service as some will be diminished as our personnel become affected by the virus and spend time recovering at home. We hope by flattening the curve it will also give our firefighters time to keep their personnel and staffing strength high enough to effectively put out the fires and handle the everyday emergencies.
In the smaller communities where volunteer and composite departments serve, not all towns have frontline hospitals and staffed police stations within their boundaries. Most rural villages and towns rely heavily on their local volunteer and composite fire department to be the first line of defence for emergencies in the community. This has been demonstrated multiple times through the decades with natural disasters, floods, transportation accidents, and all things imaginable springing local firefighters in action. The most troubling thought in my mind at this very moment is the uncertainty of what my volunteer staffing will be and what local calamities lie ahead. This concern has every fire chief and emergency planner’s attention.
As I write this, the country is shutting down in the hopes of flattening the curve. Some people are already saying that this is an overreaction by our governments, but I disagree. When all is said and done and we are successful, then some people will say, “this was all for nothing because nothing really bad happened.” All our efforts resulting in having nothing happen, however, is the whole point of this exercise. This is similar to a fire department’s continued efforts in fire prevention and public education. We never know actually how many fires were prevented or how many lives were saved by education. We can only count our losses, so the extreme measures that all levels of government are currently getting underway will hopefully yield the same result. We will surely count the losses for years to come. We will also count our blessings and count the lessons we will bring into future emergency management. We will be learning the lessons of this event for years and it will surely be a topic at our education conferences to come.
I hope this column reminds us all that Canada’s fire service plays a vital role on so many fronts. Emergency management is so important, but realistically it is done from the corner of the fire chief’s desk in smaller communities. Let make emergency planning a positive outcome from this event into the future.
In the last 10 years of writing for Fire Fighting in Canada, I have penned many columns on events affecting our volunteer fire service, and I feel that this current event will guide us for many years to come. Thank you for following my humble views from the east. More importantly, thank you for your service to Canada. Stay safe!
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email Vince at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.