Fire Fighting in Canada

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Revisiting the 72-hour rule

Preparing your communities for the unexpected

April 27, 2023 
By Kaitlin Secord

An increase in natural disasters calls for a re-evaluation of the 72-hour preparedness rule. Photo credit: Bob/Adobe Stock

In emergency management, it’s important to know where initiatives originated and that they they are still current as a directive. Some, like the 72-hour rule, emerged a long time ago and may not fully meet the needs of all communities today.

The 72-hour preparedness rule came to fruition during World War I as a federal government directive. There were requirements to be self-sufficient due to competing priorities from national defence. Individuals were expected to sustain their own continuity of livelihood and quality of life for 72-hours. 

Chris Collins, professor of emergency management at the Emergency Management and Public Safety Institute of Centennial College and level 3 trainer with Emergency Management Ontario, said, “We are still using a method of preparedness from war-times, but have advanced as a society in every other way. So, what’s wrong with this picture?”

Public Safety Canada released a report in June 2010 called the “Emergency Preparedness Week 2010 Evaluation” which saw Phoenix Strategic Perspectives, a market researcher from Ottawa, conduct a survey among Canadian residents to “explore issues related to Emergency Preparedness Week.” 


The results showed that 72 per cent of those surveyed strongly agreed that an emergency plan and kit are necessary to ensure the safety of their family. It also found that 54 per cent assumed their area would not likely be affected by disaster and 48 per cent thought if disaster did strike, it would be over soon. Forty-four percent felt the government would take care of them if a large-scale emergency were to occur. 

Fifty-eight per cent said their family had never looked into what to do in case of an emergency, 60 per cent said they hadn’t purchased or prepared an emergency kit and about one-third said they felt they did not need one.  

Since 2010, demographics, geographics and population have changed significantly across Canada. 

“An increase in immigration and a rise in natural disasters, construction and inflation have all led to changes in budgets, municipalities and individual needs,” said Collins. “It, therefore, makes no sense that we are still considering emergency preparedness as side-of-the-desk work.” 

Support from government agencies is different among rural, suburban and urban areas, and so are their needs. “This is why 72 hours cannot be something that is universally applicable,” said Collins. “Emergency services are closer and more available in urban cities whereas in rural regions it can take three days to get to somewhere at times.” 

So, what can be done? Look to your community, municipality and even the specific neighbourhoods you serve, said Scott Cameron, co-founder of Emergency Management Logistics Canada. 

“No one can prepare a community better than members of that same community,” 

Many regions are transitioning away from a generic approach by incorporating tools that are unique to them.

FireSmart Canada and B.C. FireSmart have launched two unique initiatives that directly help communities support themselves. The Local FireSmart Representatives program is described as “people from all walks of life, unified by a central purpose: “to mitigate the damages caused by wildfires to our neighbourhoods and communities.” These representatives are your neighbours, community leaders and fire professionals that “foster FireSmart values at a grassroots level.” 

Collins was a local FireSmart representative during his time living in B.C. “The program provides risk assessment on an individual level. We’d look at things like trees in someone’s front lawn and the impact that has on the wilderness-urban interface,” said Collins.

The other initiative is the FireSmart Canada Neighbourhood Recognition Program (FCNRP). This program recognizes neighbourhoods “that have taken critical steps to reduce their vulnerabilities to wildfires.” 

The program hits on a couple of areas of preparedness that are often weak within province-wide planning. First, they use local FireSmart representatives to create a plan that identifies locally agreed-upon solutions and goals that are attainable for each neighbourhood to achieve. 

These goals and solutions are tracked by progress or status and are used to create “dedicated local FireSmart programs.” The FCNRP also sees investment opportunities of $2 per capita annually in local neighbourhoods. 

“People like to be recognized and self-sufficient,” Collins said. “By helping our neighbours develop FireSmart tools, and showing them that we see their efforts, we’re setting everyone up for greater success.” 

The FireSmart initiatives are one example of provinces taking charge of preparedness, and it is exemplary in considering the geography and demographics of each community in its approach. 

Ontario released its first-ever Provincial Emergency Management Strategy and Action Plan this year. The plan sets a general foundation for emergency management across the province. While its “one window for all Ontarians” approach seeks to coordinate with emergency management partners on preparedness and information sharing, it may not directly consider that the time and need for emergency response in Timmins, Ont., varies greatly from what is needed in Toronto. 

The Alberta Emergency Management Agency works in a similar function by coordinating agencies for emergency operations. 

These coordination plans, while obviously important, unfortunately don’t create enough “buy-in,” said Collins. 

He explained that the most effective way to engage someone is by connecting with their emotions. “You only have about three seconds to grab someone’s attention through an advertisement or flyer, but storytelling lets people put themselves into situations. It lets them think about their reactions and realities and has proven to be a very effective way to communicate with communities.” 

A study called “Interventions for Preventing Residential Fires in Vulnerable Neighbourhoods and Indigenous Communities: A Systematic Review of the Evidence”, showed that partnerships with Indigenous communities and education through tailored, culturally appropriate programming saw improvements in engagement with targeted populations. 

One of the most common findings for areas of improvement is communication. 

“We often emphasize public education, but I think emergency services need to start sharing their initiatives more often,” said Collins. “There’s no need for these techniques and programs to be secretive. Our goal as emergency personnel is to help our communities stay safe; by sharing what we’re doing, we can learn, re-evaluate, grow and develop at an even more impressive rate than we are now.” 

“The language used when it comes to emergency preparedness is a good place to start,” said Cameron. “Traction gained in public awareness could be lost or contribute to confusion about standards if it were to be changed. With any public messaging, the headlines need to be backed up with context.” 

While 72-hours may not be enough time for all communities to use as a rule of prepardness, its marketability and memorability are two things that make the concept attractive. “The greater value of the 72-hour preparedness movement has been the awareness generated within the public realm,” said Cameron. 

The 2010 Emergency Preparedness Week study by Public Safety Canada found that greater than 70 per cent of participants understood what 72-hour referred to.  

Provinces and territories are updating the language they use when it comes to preparedness. Most suggest “a minimum of 72-hours”, while regions like Sidney, B.C., are encouraged to be prepared for seven days due to their remote location. 

“Disasters are inevitable, but the scale and scope of damage can vary depending on mitigation strategies and preparedness,” said Cameron. 

Choosing what to communicate with the communities you serve and how you do it should no longer be based on a generalization. Shifting focus to how you can best prepare your communities for the unexpected will provide relief to everyone being impacted. 

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