Controlling Costs of Disasters

Jul 15, 2007

Regions and municipalities deal with crises on a somewhat regular basis and therfore tend to maintain their readiness levels, however, major disasters that call for special resources do not happen very often. The tendency then, especially as events fade into the past, is to let our preparedness guards down. This is perhaps more true at the federal and provincial/state ­levels that are further removed from first response demands.

The fact of the matter is that emergencies and disasters are increasing markedly ­– as are the costs of their impacts. While it is not always apparent from a regional perspective, on a national and global level we are facing massively increasing major events and their associated costs as the two charts clearly show.

The reasons behind the increasing frequency and costs are varied and complex. They lie in urbanization and growing populations, economic development and massively increased transportation, and particularly in the proliferation of hazardous materials. In spite of greater concern about safety and much improved standards and performance, the magnitude of other factors (including impacts of climate change and increasing climate variability) is becoming overwhelming.

If the current situation is not sufficiently severe enough to cause a careful examination of how we manage risks and our preparedness to protect the safety of the public and our infrastructure, the rate of increase of the number of events and their costs gives us much to be concerned about in the future.

Case in point: on August 3, 2005, a few kilometres west of Edmonton, an accident occurred on the CN Railway mainline that was to have a profound impact on the way that risks are dealt with in Alberta and likely in Canada.  Beside normally peaceful Lake Wabamun, 43 rail cars careened off the tracks, spilling thousands of litres of Bunker C fuel and pole treatment oils into the lake.

Emergency forces responded to the scene quickly but as the days went on, the situation for residents, including the Paul First Nation, was frustrating. The rail line reopened but the oil continued to spread across the lake, coating birds and shorelines.

Various federal, provincial and municipal government agencies were involved, yet the emergency response system seemed unable adequately to address the situation. There was a long delay to determine that pole treatment oil was one of the spilled substances and more time elapsed before its precise properties were found. It took several days for appropriate containment booms to arrive on site.

The derailment quickly turned into a major environmental, social and economic disaster. The emergency response should have been coordinated and effective, but instead had a fitful and drawn-out beginning. Information that should have been readily available to everyone affected by the spill was slow to come and sometimes unclear.

Province’s Reaction
On August 14, the province announced that it was establishing the Environmental Protection Commission to address issues emerging from the incident and to review and make recommendations on Alberta’s ability to respond to environmental ­incidents.

Dr. Eric Newell, former Chairman of Syncrude Canada Ltd. and now Chancellor of the University of Alberta, led the Commission. Its six members were recognized experts in emergency response, environmental issues and the petroleum industry. In addition, seven expert advisors from industry and government provided advice and assistance to the Commission’s work. Its mandate was very broad:

  • To examine Alberta’s capacity to respond effectively to incidents, particularly the environmental aspects;
  • To make recommendations to enhance prevention, mitigation and preparedness capabilities;
  • To review high risk situations facing the province, particularly environmental ones, and best practices for dealing with them;
  • To review reporting requirements for hazardous substances; and
  • To provide advice respecting rail safety and jurisdictional issues.

The Commission worked rapidly over a three and a half month period, hearing from hundreds of experts and stakeholders in focus groups and consultation meetings. It looked at emergency management systems in other provinces and jurisdictions, reviewed current practices in Alberta, assessed strengths and weaknesses, and researched and consulted on a range of options, best practices and potential solutions to strengthen the emergency response framework.

An Enhanced Emergency Management System
The Commission’s report was completed and provided to the Government of Alberta at the end of November 2005. Its far-reaching conclusions and recommendations, accepted fully by the government, provided a blueprint for establishing a world-class risk and emergency management system in Alberta, and a model for others in Canada.

The essence of the Commission’s key recommendations were:

  • A senior agency, reporting directly to Executive Council, should be created and made responsible for a comprehensive all-hazards approach to emergencies, disasters and security and coordinating activities among departments of the government;
  • A one-window emergency call centre should be established within the new agency to ensure that the right response is triggered as quickly as possible when an incident occurs;
  • A safety, environmental and security institute should be developed to support the system, led by a multi-disciplinary stakeholder group and given a mandate and resources to support world-class research and emergency management techniques;
  • An all-hazards risk management decision making process should be adopted including the identification of top-tier “at risk” water bodies and other environmentally sensitive areas;
  • A dedicated emergency support team should be formed within Alberta Environment to enhance the technical expertise available and be available to provide onsite environmental advice if needed during an incident;
  • The Incident Command System (ICS) should be adopted throughout Alberta to ensure effective coordination during emergencies and communication with affected public groups and that the right people are in charge and the right resources are identified;
  • The number and effectiveness of joint emergency response training and field simulations should be significantly enhanced; and
  • Jurisdictional and rail transportation issues that could inhibit effective emergency response should be resolved as a matter of priority.

These comprehensive recommendations aimed to ensure that the emergency and risk management system would be responsive directly to key decision-makers and could effectively coordinate important actions among the large number of stakeholders that would be involved. The focus was clearly on streamlining the system and eliminating overlap and duplication.

The recommended use of a risk ­management paradigm would ensure that prevention and mitigation actions were considered thus resolving a long-standing issue. The Commission recognized that a focus on prevention, avoidance, and impact reduction would enhance safety and reduce costs.

One of their most innovative recommendations was to support the system with research, post-event evaluations and knowledge transfer mechanisms that would be resident in a non-governmental institute.

Results to Date
There was immediate motivation to improve the province’s risk and emergency management system – the research had been done, the blueprint had been developed, and the government had approved it in principle. All this happened between mid-August and mid-December  of 2005.

Fortunately, Alberta has experienced no major emergencies or disasters in the almost two years since the Lake Wabamun disaster. That being the case, it is remarkable that the preparedness issue has not taken a back seat – here has been considerable progress towards accommodating the vision of the Commission’s report:

  • The Alberta Emergency Management Agency has been established and the enabling legislation is in place. A Senior Official, reporting directly to a minister of Executive Council, heads it. The detailed plan and the resource lists for the development of the new Agency, with all the components recommended by the Commission, is drafted and awaiting approval and implementation. A study for the one-window emergency call centre, the key for effective alerting, is almost complete.
  • Alberta Environment has completed a massive overhaul of its emergency manage­ment capacity, developed a very effective ASERT (Alberta Environ­ment Support and Emergency Response Team) organization, tested it and actually used it for several environmental emergencies.
  • A research program, sponsored by Alberta Environment, will commence this later this year to determine if the concept of a support institute is viable and valuable.
  • Many of the rail jurisdictional issues have been resolved, and rail safety concerns have been proposed for serious study by both the federal and provincial governments. Hopefully, this urgent analysis will soon be undertaken and a full risk management process applied.

The approval and implementation process seems to have been slow and somewhat hesitant, with the notable exception of the Environment emergency support team. Clearly, the blueprint for a world-class system is there; time will tell if it is actually achieved.

Mark Egener is a risk management consultant and a member of the National Security Group. He was a senior advisor to the Alberta Environmental Protection Commission and a head of Alberta Public Safety Services (now disbanded, the agency was responsible for emergency management and control of dangerous goods).

The report from the Alberta Environmental Protection Commission is available on in the internet at
© FrontLine Security 2007