Managing Your Next Disaster

Practical Advice from Ontario’s Commissioner of Community Safety

Natural disasters can strike with ­little or no notice, causing large numbers of casualties and devastating local infrastructure. Impacts may include widespread power outages, road closures that block emergency response efforts, building collapses and structure fires. As the Com­missioner of Community Safety for Ontario and a for­mer Deputy Com­missioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, I know that within moments of a natural disaster striking, response resources and management systems can be stressed to the limit. Being prepared in advance, and understanding emergency management structures will greatly enhance your community’s resil­i­ency.

Jay C. Hope was appointed by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty as the provinc'es Commissioner of Communicty Safety in December 2006. In this role, Commissioner Hope serves as a key advisor to the Premier and Cabinet on issues related to emergency management, particularly in times of crisis. He oversees a broad portfolio, including Emergency Management Ontario (EMO), the Office of the Fire Marshall (OFM), the Office of the Chief Coroner (OCC) and the Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario (CISO). Prior to his current appointment, Commissioner Hope had the honour of serving 27 years with the Ontario Provincial Police, rising through the ranks to Deputy Commissioner (the country's first black officer appointed to the ranks of chief of police). In 2006 he was made an Officer of the Order of Merit of Police Forces.

This article provides some practical advice to law enforcement and other community emergency response officials to help ensure readiness for the next natural disaster.

Why Prepare?
High profile disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the recent tornado that ­devastated Greensburg, Kansas just two months ago, continue to remind the public and emergency responders of the massive power of nature. While Canada contends with fewer such crises, we are by no means immune from similar events.

As our ­climate changes, natural disasters will become more prevalent – and more devastating. Ontario has seen first-hand evidence of this over the last two years. For example, on August 19, 2005, a series of powerful thunderstorms swept across southern Ontario causing over $500 million of damage – the highest single insured loss in the province’s history. Last summer, during the Civic Holiday weekend, nine tornados struck central Ontario, causing widespread power outages and leaving many residents isolated and without basic services. Preparing for this sort of incident isn’t just common sense – it’s a part of due diligence in a time of increasing risk. It is particularly important that we work together to ensure that our diverse communities are adequately prepared – including residents in both urban and rural areas, and those with disabilities and/or special needs.

Know the Law
A key first step in being prepared is to become familiar with your areas’ emergency management legislation. In general, such laws across Canada include two key elements – requirements for emergency management programs and provisions for emergency powers.

In Ontario, emergency management is governed by the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. A key part of this legislation is the requirement for every municipality to implement an emergency management program. While every province/territory/state has different requirements, there is growing consensus on the core elements of an emergency management program. These are outlined in widely recognized standards such as NFPA 1600 (www.nfpa.org) and a soon-to-be-released Canadian standard, CSA Z1600 (www.csa.ca).

28 May 2007 - Legate Creek, B.C. Hwy 16 was closed while crews worked to clear the 10-metre-deep slide that dumped mud, rocks and trees across the highway after heavy rains, killing two people. The highway reopened to alternating single-lane traffic on June 17th.

At minimum, any emergency management program should contain the ­following core elements to ensure a basic level of preparedness:

Designate an Emergency Manage­ment Coordinator to administer the program and serve as a point of contact in times of emergency;

Form a community emergency management coordinating committee consisting of lead organizations to advise the coordinator and assist in the development of all program elements;

Conduct a risk assessment to assist in focusing program resources. This assessment should first identify possible hazards and then rank them according to likelihood and potential to cause harm;

Prepare an emergency response plan that outlines the roles of each department during an emergency. Ideally, this plan will include annexes outlining special response considerations for the top hazards identified in the risk assessment;

Develop a primary and alternate Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). Equipped with back-up power, meeting space, and telecommunications, the EOC is the key strategic coordination hub for inter-organization/agency cooperation during a major emergency;

Protect your critical infrastructure. This includes developing relationships with infrastructure providers in sectors such as telecommunications, health care, energy, food and water;

Inside Ontario's Provincial/territorial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC).

Conduct regular training and exercises, including an annual session for senior officials involved in ­activating the community emergency response plan;

Identify an emergency spokesperson and information officer and train them in media relations;

Develop a community public alerting system to notify residents when an emergency is about to occur and what they should do. Systems vary greatly, but could include developing good relationships and protocols with local media, ­promotion of Environment Canada’s Weatheradio system, installation of sirens; and

Start a public education and awareness program. In the case of natural ­hazards, inform the public about the ­specific risks that might affect them and provide information on what to do. The most effective campaigns establish a ­dialogue with the public, as opposed to passive ­distribution of information. At minimum, this program should encourage residents to develop a family emergency plan and prepare an emergency survival kit – including enough food and water to last 72 hours.

Law enforcement officials should become familiar with the other part of provincial/territorial emergency management legislation – provisions for emergency powers. During a natural disaster, police organizations may be called upon to communicate or enforce emergency orders. Such orders and penalties for non-compliance vary greatly from province to province, but in general may include the ability to restrict movement, order evacuations, commandeer property, and closing businesses and public areas. In Ontario, failure to comply with an emergency order can result in a fine of up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to one year.

August 2006 - Buildings were destroyed and roads were blocked following a powerful tornado that ripped through Combermere, Ontario. (Photo: Etienne Grégoire : Environment Canada)

Law enforcement organizations should consult with legal council regarding their actions under emergency orders and under common law – particularly as it pertains to forcible removal of residents from homes, which may be required under extreme life-threatening situations.

Photo: Joann Kropf-Hedley, EMO  

Responding to a Disaster
Response to each type of natural disaster will be different depending on the nature of the incident – a flood response will pose significantly different hazards and resource demands than a tornado or blizzard. The more planning you do ahead of time, the higher your likelihood of success. In building a risk-based response plan, consider including the following elements:

  • A summary of the hazard and specific risks it poses;
  • The community/organization’s concept of operations for that particular hazard;
  • Core objectives for such a response (such as: protect lives, guard property);
  • Specific roles for response organizations and key officials;  
  • Specialized resources required; and
  • Other hazard-specific considerations related to command and control, logistics, administration, and so on.  

Next, you need to ensure your jurisdiction has a flexible, but standardized approach to managing the various incidents during an emergency. Several approaches are used in Canada, but overall, an Incident Management System (IMS) that is based on the Incident Command System is becoming most prominent. In Ontario, we are adopting IMS across the province for all incidents, and all levels of response. An effective IMS maximizes resource effectiveness, ensures the development of a common Incident Action Plan, and establishes effective command and control mechanisms.

Finally, know how to get more help. Natural hazards can devastate your infrastructure and resources. You may lose communications, your roads could be blocked, and many people may be injured.

This new operations vehicle, Mobile 1, will be a key asset during emergencies. (Photo: Emergency Management Ontario)

To offset these impacts, form mutual assistance agreements that cover not only police resources (in Ontario, the Police Services Act discusses mutual assistance between police services), but also a wide variety of other resources and assistance. Where community resources are exhausted, regional or provincial/territorial assistance can be requested through your provincial/territorial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC). By calling your PEOC, you can gain access to advice, assistance, and additional resources, possibly including Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) teams to rescue victims trapped under collapsed structures; communications support; and hazardous materials containment.

Ontario has recently purchased a state-of-the-art Mobile Emergency Operations Centre which can be used to support community response should your own infrastructure be overwhelmed or damaged. In a worst-case scenario, where all other resources have been exhausted, your PEOC can coordinate with the ­federal government to request military and other resources.

Be ready always, and practice!

As Ontario’s Commissioner of Community Safety, Jay C. Hope advises the Premier and Cabinet on crisis-related issues.
© FrontLine Security 2007