Emergency Preparedness in Quebec

Sep 15, 2012

It was one of those frosty January mornings in Saguenay, Quebec. The year was 2009, and almost 70 elderly people were shivering out in the cold as the walls of the now blazing seniors’ residence, Belle Génération, began to fall. Chances of saving the building looked slim.

The first in command that morning, Saguenay’s fire chief Carol Girard, had a lot on his mind but one thing was foremost: his clients. It was –30°C and many of the Belle Génération’s residents were in their pyjamas, standing barefoot in the snow. They had to be relocated – and quickly.

A call to the Red Cross, with whom Ville de Saguenay has an agreement to provide disaster services, allowed the victims to be temporarily sheltered, while Girard’s team was fighting the fire.

“Fires are no longer emergencies,” says Girard. With a new approach to emergency planning, Saguenay’s emergency response has become a series of procedures. “It turned into managing emergency responses, because we planned the situation.”

This emergency response approach is client-based, or consequence-based, as opposed to all-hazard, as used in most North American jurisdictions.

Although results are similar, the difference between the two approaches lies in the planning process. While the all-hazard approach encompasses the functions and activities needed to be addressed in case of any type of incident, the client-based approach is driven by focussing on first serving the population’s needs.

During an emergency response such as at Belle Génération, the client-based approach meant for Girard that, once his 70-something firefighting force had stabilized the blaze, he had to permanently relocate the victims. Under his leadership, Saguenay’s arts, culture, community and library division would find new homes for the homeless elderly.

“[The client-based approach] makes sure that any need the population could have is not forgotten,” says Josiane Simon, president of Multi Risk International, a Montreal-based risk management consultancy group.

This requires identifying organizations that are not necessarily thought of during the planning process, such as a city’s arts and culture division for providing long-term housing to victims.

It was the Quebec government’s intention that the switch to client-based emergency preparedness would be facilitated by the 2002 municipal reorganization.

Lévis, Quebec, just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, is one city that implemented this new approach when it amalgamated. Its post-2002 area of responsibility includes ten former cities and villages, each with their own vision and culture. A temporary emergency plan was first set up following the amalgamation, and then began the plan overhaul.

The new city’s resources were not only reorganized, but were also re-identified. According to Lévis’ fire chief, Yves Després, this proved to be a great communication exercise between the different services, which, on top of determining each division’s responsibility, led to greater cooperation in other matters that still exists today.

“We’re very proud of the ease with which we can maintain our network of partners,” says Després. From ministries to health organizations, people working for different partners know each other. “This networking exercise makes us more efficient (on site),” he says.

One of Lévis’ tools to improve communication between the city and businesses was the creation in 2006 of its “Comité mixte municipal et industriel”. The committee has assisted the city in implementing an integrated process for industrial emergencies in bringing together resources, ­professional expertise and equipment.

Ultramar, which has an oil refinery in Lévis, has become one of the committee’s most important members and is working to harmonize its emergency plans with the city.

Creating the committee paid off at the onset when an explosion occurred in one of Ultramar’s refinery units in 2006, putting at great risk the 130,000 residents. The fire was quickly contained by Lévis’ fire department and no injuries were reported.

In Saguenay, the task of revising the emergency plan and facilitating communications between various partners was given to a fulltime advisor created especially for the purpose; this emergency preparedness advisor answers to the fire chief.

The advisor holds two or three meetings per year with city staff and meets regularly with external partners. According to Saguenay’s deputy fire chief Steeve Julien, these meetings have improved communications both at the planning stage and when responding to emergencies. “(Communications issues) have decreased a lot since the advisor’s arrival,” says Julien.

However, not all municipalities are fortunate enough to have the financial means to hire more staff. As elsewhere in Canada, Quebec cities are being given greater responsibilities, but not necessarily more money.

Cities’ budgets dedicated to emergency preparedness are not grand, but there are ways to get money from other services, says Lévis’ Després. For example, although it is a part of responding to an incident and should fall under the emergency preparedness budget, relocating victims of a disaster is part of the arts budget in Lévis.

Although cities could use more funds, the situation is not dire. “Emergency preparedness at Ville de Lévis is not compromised by funding,” says Després.

In 2001, the Quebec government enacted the Civil Protection Act, which imposes on every municipality in the province the requirement for an emergency plan. According to Joël Chéruet, certified consultant in emergency and civil security, although this law is “the best in the world,” there is no mechanism to enforce its provisions.

Through the 2002 municipal reorganization, the Quebec government attempted to compel all cities to prepare emergency plans, but that failed, says Chéruet, who compares the situation with Canada’s most populous province.

In the early 1990s, the lack of emergency plans at the city-level in Ontario had been the same as in Quebec. However, the Progressive Conservative government at the time embarked on a municipal reform that, among other things, reduced the number of municipalities dramatically. Today, each Ontario city government has an emergency plan, thanks largely to funding provided by Queen’s Park.

The Quebec government also provides no incentives for municipalities to have an emergency plan, says Chéruet. In fact, each city struck by disaster is financially compensated regardless of the efforts it made towards emergency preparedness.

“In Quebec, the mentality it that once you have a plan, all is good,” he says, explaining that it is important to keep plans active and up to date.

Before Saguenay’s amalgamation, (today a city of close to 145,000 inhabitants and covering roughly 1,700 square kilometres) emergency plans were not a priority, says Julien. He estimates that, back then, real catastrophes ­happened only every ten to 20 years. For example, Chicoutimi and La Baie, which are now part of Saguenay, were the site of one of the biggest overland floods in recent Canadian history. In July 2006, 275 millimetres of water fell on the region over a two-week period, causing the Saguenay River to swell two metres higher than normal and washing away an entire neighbourhood.

The catastrophe claimed seven lives, and over 16,000 people were evacuated, while 488 homes were destroyed, and 1,230 were damaged, for an estimated $1.5 million in damages in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and Côte-Nord regions. “People are still fearful,” especially when the river’s level rises, says Saguenay’s Julien.

To mitigate this threat, Saguenay purchased electronic equipment that phones residents to inform them on the river’s levels and whether the situation is normal or requires evacuation. The automated system also provides information for any type of emergency situations, such as landslides or ice storms, and is used in concert with the media and emergency responders.

Saguenay’s fire department also began an annual campaign in the summer of 2010 to educate citizens on the importance to prepare themselves for the first 48 hours of a natural or industrial disaster. It is hoping to reach close to 10,000 people per summer.

“We’re trying to raise people’s awareness on emergency preparedness,” says Julien. In the end, it’s the client that matters the most. In fact, a disaster is always judged by the number of victims and its impact on their lives. 

André Fecteau is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.
© Frontline Security 2012