Emergency planning to continue in 2005

While Fort Frances was tops when it came to developing an emergency management plan last year, the town still has work ahead of it in 2005, said Dale Smyk of Emergency Management Ontario.
“Kudos to [Fort Frances Fire Chief] Steve Richardson and his group. They were the first to get the whole program I’m going to talk about completed in 2004,” Smyk said before his presentation to town council Monday night.
“They were quite active,” he added. “They got their work done early, and actually provided a template for some other communities.”
But Smyk explained that Fort Frances, along with the other 400-plus municipalities across the province, will have to keep at it in the year ahead.
Smyk began by explaining that the community emergency management program, in accordance with the Emergency Management Act, is a provincially-mandated initiative in which Ontario municipalities must develop plans to deal with potential disasters (natural or otherwise).
The program is split into three stages—essential, enhanced, and comprehensive—which must be completed by the end of 2006.
In the first stage, which municipalities started working on in late 2003 and should have had wrapped up by the end of 2004, community emergency management committees had to meet a number of goals—all of which the committee here, under the guidance of community emergency management co-ordinator Chief Richardson, did by last November.
For instance, the committee established an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) in the committee room at the Civic Centre, with an alternate location at the Fort Frances Airport.
Smyk noted it’s good to have the locations some distance apart because if they’re too close, disaster conditions preventing the use of one site could affect the other one.
The town also has access to a mobile command unit, if necessary.
But at the enhanced level, the committee now should work to determine a protocol for staff at the EOCs in the event of an emergency.
In another example, while a co-ordinator (Chief Richardson) was chosen to head up the program here, Smyk said the local committee should consider getting an alternate co-ordinator for “continuity purposes”—in case the fire chief ever moves away from town.
Another thing the committee did last year was identify community critical infrastructure.
Smyk noted these are the “lifelines that provide a certain quality of life for people in the municipality,” such as sources of food, water, means of sewage disposal and electricity, municipal governance, banking services, and telecommunications.
At the enhanced level, the committee now has to determine whether it’s possible to develop “back-ups” for these services.
Smyk also said while the group developed a public awareness program last year, it has to step it up to “public education” in the year ahead. This means developing “customized messages to address specific hazards in the community.”
The local committee also will be focusing more on Hazard Identification and Risk Management (HIRAM) in the enhanced phase.
“In the past, communities took an all-contingency approach to emergency management. They said, ‘Here we are in Northwestern Ontario. We’re ready for any eventuality. We’ve done all we can,’” said Smyk.
“What we’ve asked municipalities is to take a look back at the past 15 years and identify the most likely hazards to occur in their community down the road,” he added.
In Fort Frances, for instance, the top hazard was identified as “hazardous materials in a fixed facility”—or, in other words, chemicals from the mill.
Other tops hazards common in Northwestern Ontario communities are forest fires, floods, and power outages due to severe storms, noted Smyk.
“What we want to get into with the enhanced and comprehensive level programs is do work around those top hazardous risks,” he added. This will be in terms of first finding means of prevention, and then mitigation (in case a situation can’t be prevented).
Also, the committee now will have to look at conducting annual staff training as well as an annual program review.
Ultimately, the committee should develop a five-year plan, whereby each year the community can undertake exercises of increasing scale—culminating in a “full-out field exercise” in the fifth year, Smyk said.
Smyk noted Emergency Management Ontario, which came about April 15, 2003 to coincide with the Emergency Management Act, is the evolution of Emergency Measures Ontario.
The latter helped municipalities develop emergency response plans and came on-site to help if an actual emergency ever occurred.
But the former is different. “It’s a change that takes people from having plans to actually practising them,” said Smyk.
While more than 90 percent of municipalities in Ontario have emergency plans, only 30 percent actually practice them on a regular basis, he noted.
“An analogy I’d like to claim is: You have life insurance, you throw it the safety deposit box, and you’re covered. You have car insurance, you put it in the glove box, and you’re covered.
“You create an emergency response plan, and don’t do anything with it, you’re not covered,” Smyk warned.
Smyk said nearly all of the 440 municipalities in Ontario must have emergency plans in place, but First Nations are not required to have them at this time.
But he added Emergency Management Ontario is trying to get funding from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada this year so First Nations can be part of the planning in the future.
Mayor Dan Onichuk noted that when Fort Frances and International Falls had an emergency exercise last year involving a chlorine gas leak scenario, it became apparent that Couchiching First Nation could be affected by the “gas cloud.”
But since the reserve was not part of the program, they did not have a mechanism for warning Couchiching residents of the danger.
He added Fort Frances should develop a partnership with Couchiching when it comes to the community emergency management program.
Coun. Struchan Gilson asked if, in this age of mass communication, there was a role for HAM radio, to which Smyk replied that partnering with HAM radio operators was “strongly encouraged” since it’s possible a situation could arise where all other means of communications fail.
Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft asked Smyk what would happen if an emergency happens “outside of business hours” and the nature of the emergency has to be communicated to the public?
Chief Richardson noted B93-FM can do remote broadcasts via phone lines, and could do an emergency announcement at any hour of the day from any location with a phone.
Smyk noted some larger communities have 24-hour radio broadcasting while smaller ones might just use sirens or other audio devices to send an emergency signal to its residents.