Friday, March 20, 2020
Seasonal Hazards are Coming: Rural and Remote Communities Face Big Challenges
The response to COVID-19 has escalated very quickly in Canada and globally. The measures being taken align with the risk assessments and impact assessments developed by public health experts, emergency managers, senior leaders at all levels of government, and the experiences captured from lessons learned and after-action reviews from previous crises. Risk assessment is the cornerstone of all emergency management planning – defining it, describing it, identifying how it can manifest, the impacts it can have – in order to inform plans and measure to mitigate risk.
The strategic thinking of emergency managers and public health officials allows for adequate planning and preparation for crises. The challenge with COVID-19 is the scope and scale of this crisis, and the resources, personnel and focus that it consumes. The decisions taken to manage the crisis have been the right ones; the point is that this an all-consuming activity for the Government of Canada, Provincial Governments, Municipal Governments, and many civil society organizations. What this means in practical terms is that emergency operations centres (EOCs) of every organization large enough to have one are activated and will be for the foreseeable future. Continuity for essential staff has been implemented; everyone is running at, or near, maximum capacity. Current COVID-19 spread models show that this crisis is going to last many more weeks, if not months.
Seasonal risks will soon be upon us, in the middle of the COVID-19 response. Spring is coming. In many regions in Canada this means increased risk of flooding and wildfires. There is no second force available to manage seasonal hazards and no second set of facilities available to support the response.
This has the potential to be highly impactful on local authority responses, with specific focus on remote and rural communities that may have fewer resources to respond. This is especially concerning for areas that typically experience seasonal risks. On 17 March 2020 the Quebec government warned that there will be no emergency shelters available for people that need to evacuate from flooding. The primary concern is that opening evacuation centres would spread COVID-19 making the health crisis worse. Officials are being urged to use hotels or university dorms as evacuation facilities. The Premier rightly pointed out that there will be available hotel capacity due to the travel and tourism limitations as part of the COVID-19 response.
Local authorities contribute to and depend on provincial guides and documentation that supports local decision making during evacuations. This presents a serious challenge to emergency managers – the standard guides they rely on may not meet the physical distancing recommendations issued by our public health officers.
Just as public health officials demonstrated proactive early warning for global transmission of COVID-19, we now need to proactively consider our emergency plans with the consideration of physical distancing measures. Preplanning methods to ensure appropriate distance between people through either design or by managing the timing of intakes at reception centres or group lodging facilities is critical. This can be supported by technological solutions that divert some of the reception centre tasks to online or remote solutions for those who are able, thus reducing the number of people who need to access centres in person. Additionally, offering alternatives for those who are high risk and utilizing the templates provided by Indigenous Services Canada to support public service announcements of COVID-19 in the Indigenous language appropriate for your region could all be considered as possible proactive planning.
COVID-19 response is the clear national priority. However, we are also exposed to seasonal hazards. A proactive assessment of local emergency plans with a consideration of COVID-19 will help local authorities address this challenge.
Vanessa Howard is an Emergency Management Representative with Calian Group in Ottawa. She has 13 years of emergency response experience as a first responder, educator and facilitator. Her academic background includes exercise program development, the four pillars of emergency management, critical infrastructure protection, and risk management. She serves on the Professional Development Committee of the International Association of Emergency Managers.