Wildfires that ravaged Alberta in recent weeks show being prepared before disaster strikes is a town’s first defense and can make the difference between catastrophe and survival.
An emergency response plan in Fort Smith is designed to deal with all sorts of emergencies and the community is ready for the worst, says Mayor Janie Hobart.
“Our emergency plan is a generic plan to cover many types of emergencies,” she said. “We work with all the different agencies and depending on what the emergency is, we’ll work with the appropriate agency. Right now we spend a lot of time talking with Parks Canada and the [NWT government department of Environment and natural Resources (ENR)] because it happens to be fire season.”
There are other resources to draw from if the problem is bigger than Fort Smith leaders can handle. The next step would involve asking for help from the NWT government (GNWT). Whether that means supplying airplanes for an evacuation, bringing in the military or finding resources from the private sector, the GNWT can lend assistance says Lorraine Tordiff, Regional Superintendent of Municipal and Community Affairs.
“Dealing with an emergency is the responsibility of the local authorities,” Tordiff said. “If they deem it necessary they will request assistance from GNWT and then the specific agencies the town requested would be notified. The town maintains control throughout, but we’re there for support.”
In any emergency situation, especially that of a wildfire approaching town, plans can only work if information is communicated to residents effectively and quickly. Fort Smith’s plan calls for messaging through the radio and the internet, but what happens if there’s no time for that and the electronic media has been rendered useless because the town no longer has any power? At that point, says Hobart, it’s a matter of speaking to the public directly.
“There would be various vehicles from the protective services group,” Hobart said, “such as the police, ambulances, ENR, firetrucks and by-law vehicles that are equipped with public address systems that broadcast information.
“We also have a number of groups in the community like the Rangers, Casara and Search and Rescue and, depending on the situation, we would bring in their expertise and even use them to go door to door.”
Fort Smith has several evacuation route options. Which to use would depend on where there is danger. The best escape route would be along Highway Five to the west or down the road to Fitzgerald to the south, said Hobart. There is also the airport which can handle large aircraft making it possible to get groups of people out of danger. As a last resort, she added, there is also the possibility of a water evacuation but that would be a much more complicated effort.
“That would be our least preferred route,” she said. “We would have to bring in boats and barges and there is the question of whether they are available. It would depend on the day because these things are not sitting vacant. Anytime there is an emergency evacuation a number of agencies would be involved including private industry and citizenry who have boats. In times of trouble people step up to the plate.”
According to Tordiff, one of the biggest challenges during an emergency is ensuring people keep calm and follow direction. For Hobart, that remains one of her biggest priorities but as one of the key leaders of any emergency response operation she has to make sure all of the various agencies involved are informed so they can do their job.
“The biggest challenge is communication and coordinating all of the working groups,” she said. “The health centre deals with people with ambulatory issues and people in their care at Northern Lights and the hospital, the Housing Authority is responsible for seniors, the schools to make sure they can get the students back to their parents. Each organization has a plan in place as to what they have to do.”
In the end, however, Tordiff believes that in spite of a plan the responsibility for safety ultimately begins with the actions people take in their own homes before emergencies happen.
“People need to take responsibility and take whatever measures to mitigate risk to their family and property,” she said. “If we all take responsibility for ourselves and the town has a solid plan to deal with this situation we’re as prepared as we can be.”
Everyone hopes there will be no cause for concern. That can change in an hour but for now Hobart says the situation is under control.
“People should know at this stage there isn’t anything to worry about,” she said. “We’re in constant communication with the partners we need to be talking to and we’ve taken action to be proactive by having the tabletop meeting and training exercises so we are on top of things should something happen.”