Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Emergency Bafflegab Preparedness Part 2: Winnipeg

I found a 2004 Winnipeg media report about the first Senate Committee report that was released. Excerpts:

"In a hazard analysis submitted to the committee, (Winnipeg's emergency preparedness co-ordinator Randy) Hull ranked the potential disasters facing the city. Winnipeg is at a high risk of natural disasters like floods and blizzards, along with train derailments and hazardous materials spills from trucks rumbling through the city. A gas explosion is a medium risk in Winnipeg because the city's soil shifts during frost, which can damage gas lines.An airplane disaster is also a medium risk, and there's a high to medium risk of severe spring or summer weather. Accidental contamination from the Canadian Science Centre for Human & Animal Health is a medium to low risk."

Fast forward four years and, if you want to zero in on the Winnipeg angle of the story, Hull once again presented information to Senate Committee in March 2008. His testimony can be found here.

I've put some of the more interesting bits below. Note that this is talking just about the Winnipeg portion of things not the Provincial role. Also note that Mr. Hull explained to the committee off the top that he was speaking personally as an E.P. professional, not on behalf of the city :

Q: Which (Emergency preparedness) model do you use?

Mr. Hull: We use one based on the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, model where you look at history, vulnerability, probability and potential. For example, we have a history with flooding, but not with airplane crashes other than small airplanes. You examine the history and the probability and determine what the vulnerability is to the public. We equate that into a formula and draw a line. You plan for anything that scores higher than 100. Anything that scores lower than 100, if you do not have the resources, you put aside and plan for later if you can.

Nothing is set in stone about how we are to do a risk assessment. The Province of Manitoba, through the Office of the Fire Commissioner, did a general province-wide risk assessment of all communities. I spent one day with a gentleman in Winnipeg, and he wrote a risk assessment for Winnipeg that I do not quite agree with. However, we have our own assessment. We review what comes into the city in the way of new industry or new commerce and we assess what risk that might entail.
The Chair: Is there a common set of metrics in the province? .... If you looked at the risk assessment in one community and compared it to another, would you understand essentially what they meant?

Mr. Hull: I would say that the risk assessments done in Manitoba are generally very subjective and not objective.


The Chair: .... You also reported to the committee that you did not involve industry when you were preparing the risk assessment. Was it because industry had no interest or because you did not have the resources to contact them?

Mr. Hull: We did not have the resources to do a lot of follow-up. Once you knock on a couple of doors and get them involved in the process, it is very labour intensive to continue with them in the process. In one year I would have to decide to do risk assessments and involve industry and commerce, but I would have to let everything else fall off the table. I would have be able to train, do research or have an exercise in that year. I would need more people to make those contacts.

Senator Day: How many people do you have in your office?

Mr. Hull: There is myself.

Senator Day: That is it?

Mr. Hull: That is it.


Senator Day: Have you received assurances that CANALERT, a federal government initiative, will help with communications by overriding all other communication systems to help in an emergency?

Mr. Hull: The information I have obtained about CANALERT is that it is to come online in 2010. One year ago at a conference, I saw a presentation on CANALERT and how it will work. They dialled in and the BlackBerry, email and telephone were activated and the crawler went across the television located in the room. We are waiting for CANALERT. The City of Winnipeg does not have the resources to broadcast and we do not have any agreements with the Manitoba broadcasters group, although the Province of Manitoba has had discussions with them.

Most people in Winnipeg turn to a local AM radio station that has a listenership of about 20 per cent in the mornings. Any time we have threatening weather, the listenership can go above 50 per cent. We have an exhaustive list of who we can talk to in the media to get our messaging out. However, we do not have the resources to put in Reverse 911 or a program where we subscribe to a text-messaging system. There is software out there, but they all have per-user or licensing costs. We are waiting for CANALERT.

I think that is a provincial and a federal initiative. Why would Brandon have its own system when Winnipeg has a system? The same thing is true for the Province of Alberta. Why would Calgary and Edmonton each create a system? We should have one common system across Canada so that, regardless of where you travel in Canada, you know how you will get a disaster message or an important message about events that are occurring.


Senator Day: Earlier you mentioned that you spoke to someone who was very involved in the flooding in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina, and you asked if they checked with North Dakota. Could you tell us that story? I think it illustrates the importance of overall coordination.

Mr. Hull: Our public health agency and health care providers had a conference, and a doctor was there from New Orleans. He was one of the doctors who had to evacuate the Tulane hospital and was also responsible for all the hospitals getting back together. I asked him during our conversation whether he had ever spoken to the people from Grand Forks. They also lost 80 per cent of their city. Although smaller in size, the structure of their recovery program was unique.

The City of Winnipeg developed its recovery plan based on a plan out of Australia and on the city of Grand Forks. I presented that at the World Conference on Disaster Management back in 2002. We wanted to share that.

The doctor from New Orleans said, ``Grand Forks, North Dakota? Why would I call them?'' I am sure that some people in Louisiana are not sure where Grand Forks is. They are landlocked. I told him that they had the same situation, though on a smaller scale, and that their recovery plan was exhaustive, unique and worked so well that they had recovered within five years, while New Orleans after more than two years was still in dire straits. I gave him the names of my three contacts in Grand Forks. One of those three called me a month later and said, ``I am going to New Orleans for three months.''

It took a contact from New Orleans talking to someone in Winnipeg to be told about Grand Forks. Why is the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, not saying, ``Here is a perfect case scenario of another American city that you should follow''?


The Chair: What would you ask the provinces for? You have described what you think Ottawa should be doing. From your perspective, what should the role of the province be?

Mr. Hull: If the federal government were to work with the major cities, because that is where big parts of the population are, it would free up some of the resources of the province to work with the smaller municipalities. They, too, could then create those templates for the smaller communities and work with them to ensure that they have plans. Manitoba has provincial legislation that you must have a plan, a coordinator and a response mechanism in place. That is in every municipality of Manitoba.

The major cities are unique; for example, in Manitoba, there is the city of Winnipeg at 650,000 and Brandon is next at 50,000. The province should focus on smaller municipalities and support them more, because we are so unique and there is nothing more the province can offer us. I have more sandbag machines than the province has. We have a greater public works department than much of the province has. My needs are so different that the federal government can address them better. That is just my opinion.


Senator Banks: In your opening remarks, you said that the planning and capacities in Winnipeg for emergency response are very small in comparison to other cities. Is that in terms of dollars per capita? If it is not in dollars per capita, why are they very small in comparison? Is there not enough attention paid to you by Winnipeg city council?

Mr. Hull: You are only as good as your last disaster....

I need to ask the politicians how prepared they want to be. I need to tell them that if they want to be very prepared, we need certain things.

For my budget submission in 2008 I did a per capita spending analysis with some of my contacts. I sent out about 20 requests and got 12 responses. On 8 of them, Winnipeg ranks the lowest in per capita spending.

A good friend of mine in Brandon, Manitoba, spends 20 times more than I do, because his administration understands the importance of it.


Special Note: for CANALERT, mentioned above, there is a local audio blog that talks about it on an ongoing basis as some huge mystery project that they're trying to nudge the government into action on ?! (I assume so that when it does roll out they can somehow declare that it was due to them !) .
Sky over Balmoral Street
A couple of weeks back, via Google, I came across a couple of CANALERT / 511 presentations - the one Hull mentions was in Montreal, I believe. Keep Googling and you will find the name and contact information, including email address, of the project manager in charge of the file for the feds (hint: Industry Canada).

If interested in CANALERT you may also want to check out the Senate Committee mentioned in my 'part 1' for the February 2008 presentations on the national public alerting system to the committee explaining in some detail the hows, whens and challenges of the system.

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