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Straight Talk: September 2013

Many of us in the emergency-services field are quite well versed in assessments by experts that indicate significant weather events and natural disasters are becoming more frequent, with minimal warning and harsher consequences than we have seen historically.

September 9, 2013
By Kevin Foster

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Many of us in the emergency-services field are quite well versed in assessments by experts that indicate significant weather events and natural disasters are becoming more frequent, with minimal warning and harsher consequences than we have seen historically.

We need not look any further than this year’s flooding in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta, followed weeks later by a heavy rainstorm in Toronto that caused major flooding and even required the use of boats to evacuate riders from a GO Transit passenger train, to recognize this to be an accurate assessment.

Large-scale events due to human error, mechanical failure or sabotage such as the Sunrise Propane explosion in Toronto, the Via Rail derailment in Burlington, Ont., forest fires in Western Canada, and the more recent train derailment and subsequent explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que., are also becoming all too frequent.

As crisis managers, we find ourselves thrust into the fray when these events occur and are entrusted with public confidence to ensure an effective, efficient response to protect residents and their properties, but unfortunately, we often find that there are competing interests that can cause distractions to the task at hand.

When these significant events occur, it seems that some elected officials feel a need to show up and be seen. Occasionally, their presence is to deliver some announcement of financial support to assist in the recovery process for the community affected, but sometimes it is just for a photo op. This was precisely the situation in High River, Alta., where Lethbridge Fire Chief Brian Cornforth found himself during the June flooding, and he publically pronounced his frustrations with such actions. Cornforth has a very valid concern. Unfortunately, Cornforth’s experience with former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ visit was not unique; it has happened in many other communities across this country. I had a similar experience after a tornado in Midland, Ont., in the summer of 2010.

In these situations, the emergency-management industry works diligently to protect people and their property and bring some sense of normalcy to the residents impacted by the event, yet others – and not exclusively politicians – wish to capitalize on the moment for political capital, professional accomplishment or personal interest.

The challenge we face is how to address the problem. There is no single, simple answer, but there are several opportunities to explore.

First, recognize the current state – which is that politicians want to be in their constituencies when disasters happen, and this requires considerable accommodation by emergency services – and prepare to manage within that structure. Change takes time, so to expect others to have an epiphany and alter their behaviour is unrealistic.

In my experience after the tornado, we were advised that provincial representatives were going to visit and we quickly realized that a significant influx of media was sure to follow. Like it or not, this visit became a priority to prepare for and there was not much time in which to do so. We quickly assessed the interests of each sector attending, and struck out to serve those interests. We gathered community information to distribute to the media, established a location for the media event away from the Emergency Operations Centre and the impacted site, planned a tour for the political officials and their staff and, upon request, allowed access to the main impacted area for reporters, I wouldn’t call it the ultimate plan but the disruption was managed.

Secondly, opportunities to communicate and educate politicians or dignitaries about the challenges that these situations cause must be sought out. It is unreasonable to expect others to understand the impact of their actions and behaviours on the management of an event if those people are never advised of such. The most effective way to do this is to share the objectives of the incident managers and explain how they hope to achieve them. Of course, those who don’t want to be educated on a subject can’t be educated until they decide they wish to listen and learn. Which leads to my third point: we need to influence others to want to seek information, listen and learn.

And on that note, we’ve completed the circle back to – the importance of building relationships and advocacy. Strong relationships built in advance of an event will serve most effectively during the event.

Large-scale and significant emergency incidents will continue to occur, and community officials will to continue to be burdened with accommodating the special interests of those who feel compelled to inject themselves into the middle of these situations. It is incumbent on us to prepare for that inevitability until the long-term, sustained change in attitude and respect toward the importance of emergency officials to remain focused on the situation is achieved.


Kevin Foster is in his 25th year in the fire service, having begun as a volunteer firefighter in East Gwillimbury in 1987. He was appointed as the chief with the Midland Fire Department in November 2001. He is a past president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and a certified municipal manager. Contact him at kfoster@midland.ca and follow him on twitter at @midlanddfsem


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