Disasters spur REMO to ratchet-up preparedness

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p><strong>Comfort centres</strong></p><p>The idea being neighbours help neighbours, the Regional Emergency Management Organization (REMO) has helped organize a number of &#8220;for the community by the community&#8221; comfort centres that will open to support local residents after a storm has passed. According to REMO&#8217;s website, these centers provide a place to get warm, re-charge devices, check on each other, and share information. This is a map appearing on the website. Operating times and services are updated on the website following an event. <a href="https://www.emergencymeasures.ca/comfort-stations/comfortstations" target="_blank">https://www.emergencymeasures.ca/comfort-stations/comfortstations</a></p>

As residents of Lunenburg and Queens county watch the devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria unfold in the U.S. and Caribbean, and forest fires in western Canada, municipalities are stepping up their efforts to ensure emergency preparedness and response systems are in place here.

At a Regional Emergency Management Organization (REMO) meeting in Bridgewater last week, the coordinator of that organization, Heather MacKenzie-Carey, presented a report on some of the lessons to be learned from a range of emergencies in North America.

The incidents include the recent hurricanes, the communications disruption in Lunenburg County last August, the gasoline shortage of 2015, and tropical storm Arthur of 2014.

And on September 21 and 22, REMO hosted an Emergency Centre Communications Training event for municipal officials and emergency response coordinators at the office of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg (MODL) administrative offices in Bridgewater.

"I think it will be really good for us to sort of resolve some questions or just give people training so they know what they're doing with the EOC (Emergency Operations Centre). And it will be a chance for us to look at our EOC model as well," said MacKenzie-Carey.

She acknowledged that the province and federal governments have a role in disaster response. However, she advised the REMO members that research has shown, "Without exception, it's been the municipal level that's boots on the ground in the beginning."

She referred frequently to a study by the firm KPMG, whom the City of Fort McMurray contracted to examine its response to the wild fires that ravaged the area, so that it as well as other municipalities might learn from the experience.

According to MacKenzie-Carey, the study revealed there were issues regarding a clear understanding of who was in charge during the emergency.

"We have to work with the hierarchy that we already have which is CAOs [chief administrative officers] to direct their staff and to work within that instead of blowing somebody in here," she advised.

She also discussed number of observations and comments surrounding evacuations.

Events in the past have point to "that we really need to look at evacuation in a different way," said MacKenzie-Carey.

For one thing, she said the Emergency Operation Centre should have a specific evacuation planner.

Moreover, there needs to be a good understanding of "community" in relation to community evacuations.

"I think we really need to define community, according to what residents define as community. I don't think community is really municipality."

She suggested most residents relate to their community as the areas their local fire departments cover. Lunenburgers might relate to Old Town and New Town, and residents of Bridgewater depending on what side of the LaHave River they're on.

Another consideration needs to be given to the length of time it may take to evacuate people.

MacKenzie-Carey says it's been shown that it takes about an hour to evacuate 1,000 people, "if you had good weather, clear roads, no detours, no traffic lights.

"You know, these people were saying why didn't they evacuate Houston - 23 million people. Not going to happen.

"But what that says is it would take eight hours to get Bridgewater evacuated, and that's also assuming that you know where you're going to send them to."

There is also a clear need to integrate First Nations into plans and communications, she noted.

"This has become a real problem in Manitoba, where they've got some isolated First Nations, as was it a problem in Fort Mac. And it's a problem in every one of the Canadian events that I looked at."

She pointed out there's a "gap" in Nova Scotia as well.

"There's nothing signed formally. There's no mutual aid agreements with First Nations," said MacKenzie-Carey.

"We have a Gold River, with a multi-million-dollar facility that they're building, and we don't have them very integrated into our existing plans and procedures."

Pets rescue also plays a role in emergency planning, according to MacKenzie-Carey.

"These are lessons that we've heard every single time. We always hear that pet rescue is essential and we know people stay back, don't evacuate because of pets."

She notes that the Disaster Animal Rescue Team that was developed in Nova Scotia a number of years has since been incorporated into the Red Cross.

But their target group was pets who can be transported by cage, such as dogs, cats and rabbits, and she was unsure whether the Red Cross still assists with these animals.

"We don't have anything formal that says they're going to do this. I'm not sure where that really sits. And I do know that they didn't look at cows, horses, animals like that."

In the Fort McMurray fire and the ongoing wildfires in B.C. it became standard practice for ranchers and farmers to spray paint their telephone numbers on their animals and let them loose.

"So eventually somebody calls you and says, 'Your horse is in my front yard, do you want to come and get him?' And it kind of works out there, because we're talking ranches," said MacKenzie-Carey.

"Here, I don't think people have heard to do that. And from personal experience with a horse, I can tell you mine's going to run down the 103, which is not something we want to do.

"So we have some issues there at a community level," she added.

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