Emergency management action sought

IMMEDIATE action is needed to address shortcomings identified this month with Ontario’s emergency management response plan, the managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction says.

Glenn McGillivray said findings in a report from auditor general Bonnie Lysyk — which found emergency planning to be neglected, disorganized and out of date — are more disappointing than surprising.

“It is particularly disconcerting to read that the cabinet committee on emergency management, the body responsible for the oversight of emergency management in the province, has not met for years and that emergency plans have not been updated for years,” he said.

Mr. McGillivray said the fact that the current emergency management program hasn’t considered emergencies occurring after 2009, and leaves out the latest information on climate change, cyber attacks and terrorism, “is not acceptable and must be addressed immediately.”

The auditor general said emerg-ency management in Ontario is based on five components: prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Mr. McGillivray said each component is important in its own right but an emphasis on avoiding risk based on basic risk management principals is the most effective way to prevent unwanted events.

“We are pretty good at response in this country, not so good at prevention or mitigation to avoid or minimize the impacts of an event (and) we would like to see more focus on these areas,” he said.

“While mitigation can still mean an event occurs, the impact of the event, such as loss of life, injury, property damage and disruption, would be lessened.”

Mitigation also relieves government and individual expenses.

“Less paid for response and recovery, less paid for disaster assistance and less expense for taxpayers and the least impact on the local economy,” he said. “Mitigation is a win for all involved.”

Over the past five years, Ontario has seen an ice storm, repeated flooding in Toronto, Windsor and other  southern  centres and severe windstorms causing blackouts.

Yet in all that time the province’s top government body in charge  of emergency management has not met once, the auditor general noted in her report.

The cabinet committee on emergency management, chaired by Premier Kathleen Wynne, has the mandate to provide strategic direction ensuring Ontario is prepared for emergency situations

But no regular meetings are held and the committee’s responsibilities have not been delegated to another authority, leaving major vulnerabilities in the province’s emergency response plan, the report said.

“We could find no evidence of its having held a formal meeting in the past five years,” Ms. Lysyk said in the report.

“Without meeting regularly, the committee cannot provide proper oversight and strategic direction . . . and cannot demonstrate that the province is prepared to address an emergency situation.”

Furthermore, the ministry response plan has not been updated for many years, even after major emergencies such as the 2013 ice storm, which caused widespread damage and power outages in the Greater Toronto Area.

The report also found the province’s financial assistance recovery programs cannot efficiently handle claims — an issue compounded by the fact that public education on emergency preparedness has little reach.

The report said according to Statistics Canada, only about 50% of Ontarians had any emergency plan in place and about 25% had taken precautionary measures, such as storing water or obtaining backup generators, although these numbers are in line with national averages.

It emphasized that Ontario’s disaster financial assistance programs are not intended as a replacement for private insurance.

The Ontario auditor general said the Alberta Emergency Management Agency follows best practices — in sharp contrast to Ontario.

The report said Ontario officials meet during emergencies while Alberta officials meet every two months.

AEMA executive director Scott Long said it practises introspection to ensure the emergency plan’s success.

“There is no sense in having a plan and leaving it on the shelf because it gets out of date quickly,” Mr. Long said. He said emergency management dynamics continuously change.

For example, during the Fort McMurray wildfire it became clear how important it is to partner with stakeholders independent of provincial services.

Mr. Long said during the wildfire, partnering with West Jet and other airlines proved crucial in the evacuation process.

“Always taking a look at the process, keeping up with the times, is part of being a learning-based organization,” Mr. Long said.

“You often need an external set of eyes to look at what you do to provide honest feedback on things you may not see which is why we use third-party reviews — and they also tell us what we are doing right.”

AEMA has an all-hazards approach to emergency management to ensure its plans and people can respond to any type of emergency.

“You cannot be a one-trick pony because certain people with lots of experience look at emergency management from a narrow prism — a fire expert only thinks of fire hazards,” Mr. Long said. “That can’t prepare for everything but if you focus on all hazards you are going to be in a better position.”

He said with ever-changing provincial disaster funding arrangements, community resilience will be key in the future.

“Whether you agree or not that climate change is happening, weather has changed and we have seen some bizarre events,” Mr. Long said. “Community education and preparedness . . . will enhance resiliency so communities bounce back quickly and deal with some of the chaos in the world today.”

A few days before the Ontario auditor general’s report was released, the provincial government said it is recruiting a chief of emergency management to ensure effective oversight across the province.

It said the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Service is making several changes in the name of public safety and to better prevent and respond to risks.

It is addressing five key areas:

■ Enhancing governance structures and implementing performance measurement and an evaluation framework;

■ Reviewing and updating the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act and the provincial emergency response plan;

■ Releasing an updated provincial nuclear emergency response plan by the end of the year;

■ Expanding emergency management capacity through agreements with nearby jurisdictions to share resources in an emergency, and

■ Helping municipalities obtain supplies and resources in an emergency.

Marie-France Lalonde, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, said the government has learned important lessons from recent emergencies across the province.

“The safety of the people of Ontario is our top priority, and the government must be prepared to respond to any type of emergency,” she said.

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