Did you notice that the City of Yellowknife is doing an okay job of telling citizens the situation with the wildfires that are a bit too close for comfort?
When we say “okay job,” it is not a compliment.
“If the fires get close we are going to bulldoze a fire guard around the town and gather everyone in town centre, so don’t worry; meanwhile go look at the federal government website for an emergency checklist, checkout this Facebook page daily and besides that, there is no real danger at this time.” We say that gets C+ for effort, but is hardly informing and educating properly.
We guess leaders in most Northern communities where there is a threat of wildfire – quite a few at the moment, while the rest are vulnerable – are doing little if anything to tell their residents what is going on. We suggest this is because the department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which should be setting the standard, creating templates and training communities on emergency preparedness annually – like what to do in the case of a wildfire threat or any other kind of emergency – is not seeing to that.
Just as on a small scale we all need simple, effective emergency plans for our homes that include thought-out procedures, a fire evacuation route and some kind of mental exercise by those in charge, every community leadership should be guided through that same kind of common sense planning, every spring.
Three things are accomplished with straightforward communiques to the public:
- Aware citizens do not fear the unknown, which reduces panic;
- The rumour mill’s crazy ability to twist the truth into something alarming is not a factor;
- Those doing the job are seen to be, well, doing their job – and get credit while inspiring confidence.
Here are some things we think all levels of government and all departments should be aware of:
- People are not stupid. Some are a little more excitable than others, yes, but generally the best approach in dealing with a pending emergency is to keep the public as informed as possible. Aside from the obvious needs for order and safety, decisions may need to be made by individuals on their own – sometimes life or death decisions – and to do that best, they need to know what is going on.
- Anyone in government who keeps information from the public on the assumption that people need to be told what to do or that it is best to spare them from “alarming” information is both ignorant and arrogant.
- Your communication staff is not there to control the message and present information that has been massaged to make your department look wonderful. In fact, government information belongs to the public and “information officers” should be getting that out routinely in an honest, transparent, non-partisan way.
The thing is, people want good leaders to be in charge, and they want to be assured things are being handled well. It is when confidence wanes that people get uptight. If the way things are being handled looks in any way suspect, rumours fly and things start to unravel. Keep people informed and much of that angst goes away. Keep them in the loop, communicate well using multiple means (Facebook and the internet only reach some people) and keep it simple and local. It is all about common sense.
Please note this:
- We are fortunate to have a competent, professional, well-led firefighting force, but they can only do so much. Wildfires are not typically controllable. At best they can be managed. Do not be complacent and think that there is no danger. Wildfires pushed by winds are a serious and unpredictable threat
- Bad fire seasons are rarely “one-offs.” They are typically the result of regional drought cycles over several years. The very bad wildfire season of 2014 actually got its start with drought in the Sahtu last year and now the drought has spread through all of the southern NWT. This is likely only the beginning of several bad years. Communities and individuals alike need to be “fire smart.” Make a plan, do the work. Give firefighters something to work with in case there is a wildfire threat. Be aware, prepare.