Eager to serve: Meet Team Rubicon Canada
March 30, 2023
By Maria Church
Team Rubicon Canada looks for unmet needs before, during and after a disaster.
When Team Rubicon Canada deploys to a disaster site, their staff and volunteers, known as Greyshirts, are gaining as much from the experience as the communities they serve.
First, they are fulfilling Team Rubicon’s mission – meeting unmet needs of populations affected by climate or humanitarian events. And second, those Greyshirts – a mix of serving or retired military veterans, first-responders, and “kick-ass civilians” – find meaning and purpose in teamwork and service. It’s for this reason, Team Rubicon describes itself as a dual-impact charity.
Steve MacBeth, COO for Team Rubicon Canada, says many of their volunteers sign up looking for fulfillment in giving back. “When a veteran or first-responder decides to retire from their profession, there can be a loss of identity, purpose and community,” he says. “Those three pieces are what we seek to provide to our people.”
Headquartered in Mississauga, Ont., Team Rubicon has 10 full-time employees and around 2,700 volunteers across the country. They offer what the team calls a localized service approach for all phases of the disaster cycle during response, recovery, and building resilience at no cost to the homeowner.
MacBeth says the military-rooted organization sees veterans as valuable members of Canadian society, uniquely trained in the skill set required for a successful response. Most veterans during their careers have deployed to domestic and international disasters. They’re familiar with command structures. They “speak the language,” MacBeth explains.
“That’s millions of dollars and years of training and you can continue to put it to use,” he says, and to continue supporting these trained individuals to serve as response force is like, “topping up an investment rather than starting from zero.”
Formed in disaster
Team Rubicon formed in 2010 in response to the Haitian earthquake that levelled the capitol Port-au-Prince and affected an estimated three million people. Ex-U.S. marine corps sergeants Jake Wood and William McNulty gathered up a team of six others to respond to the devastation – naming themselves Team Rubicon after the Rubicon river in Rome, an idiom for going past the point of no return.
Team Rubicon Canada became its own entity in 2016 when members responded to the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta and felt a need to organize under a national banner.
“By the end we saw an international response of about 85 volunteers that had generated without a formal organization in Canada,” MacBeth says.
The current Canadian entity has its own structure and funding, but is closely connected to both Team Rubicon U.S.A. and Team Rubicon International. Members will frequently respond cross border and will operate under the local leadership.
Since 2016, Team Rubicon Canada has deployed on over 100 missions, which includes all emergency responses and what the team calls “acts of service,” which are often recovery missions such as cleanup months after a disaster. Last year alone there were 19 missions globally and internationally served.
“We call it blue skies and grey skies,” MacBeth says, “grey during times of disaster and blue when we are engaged in ongoing training engagements to prepare our volunteer force before the next disaster strikes. But what we’ve found is that there are shades of grey rather than pure blue.”
While veterans are at the core of Team Rubicon, MacBeth stresses that they are an inclusive, not exclusive club. The last team he worked with in Atlantic Canada included a fire chief, a veteran and former engineer, a police officer, a former helicopter pilot and a CGI video developer.
“We have lots of different people,” he says. “It’s about spirit and a professional motivation towards our organization.”
Since 2016, Team Rubicon Canada has created a nationwide network of Greyshirts. The organization is continually recruiting to bolster its volunteer force to meet increasing demands for assistance.
Beyond responses, Team Rubicon also holds free training throughout the year to “up-skill” their members, such as chainsaw courses, disaster operations planning, leadership programs, and ICS courses, and the like.
“We fully inculcate our people with the ICS program. We give everyone a baseline of ICS 100 and 700, and then give additional training of 200, 300 and 400 to everyone who works inside of our incident management team,” MacBeth says.
The organization is moving more into mitigation measures as well. They recently trained in the U.S. on wildfire mitigation, and plan to put those skills to use across Canada when called upon.
Determining when and where to activate boils down to unmet needs, MacBeth says. “Whether it’s a fire, flood, wind or storm event, we’ll ask, are there unmet needs?”
A tailor-made enterprise management system which volunteers know as Roll Call, allows Team Rubicon Canada to track all volunteer’s contact information, experience and training, and deployment history. This system is part of the Microsoft Dynamics 365 platform.
Team Rubicon also uses ESRI’s suite of Geospatial enabled applications including ArcGIS Pro, Survey123, Workforce and Field Maps, this allows them to assist communities in mapping the scale and scope of damages so they can prioritize response, as well as provide near real time situation updates from the field to emergency management partners in the emergency operations centre. During the B.C. floods in 2021, Team Rubicon’s reconnaissance teams in Chilliwack and Hope fed data to the regional district, identifying mudslides, road and bridge damage, and cut-off residents.
Greyshirts can also declare a hazard in their region to alert headquarters of a developing situation. For example, during the Derecho in Ontario last year – the costliest disaster of 2022 from an insured loss perspective – Team Rubicon members who live in the region uploaded photos of the damages and declared it a hazard. “That allowed us to start to build our own picture so we could say, ‘Hey, we think there is an issue. We’ll talk to the local emergency manager to see if there are unmet needs.’” MacBeth says.
Knowing local teams will be busy during the initial stages of a response, Team Rubicon will first get in touch with federal contacts, then provincial, and lastly municipal. The team can then integrate at any one of those levels depending on what’s required of the response.
Headquarters will also connect with the NGO alliance in each province. “What you don’t want to do is overwhelm a system or show up uninvited,” MacBeth says. Often their suggestion is to send a few members for an initial reconnaissance and then determine if there is a need and matching funding to send a larger response team.
When headquarters makes a call about a deployment, Greyshirts receive an automated email or text from Roll Call notifying them and asking for availability. If a member responds as available, the next communication is directions and, if required, a plane ticket.
MacBeth says they’re also keenly aware, as a veteran and military-rooted organization, of the need for long-term volunteers to “change their socks.” Members serving on extended operations are strongly encouraged to take a break – go home and put their feet up.
“During Fiona, there were a number of repeat deployers. There were people that went for seven days, took a 14-day break, and then went back for seven days. In total we were in Fiona 71 days but did it in a series of sprints and waves rather than all at one time,” MacBeth says.
‘Fuelling the mission’
Currently charitable giving “fuels the mission,” MacBeth says. “Our biggest challenge is ensuring we have provisioned the right resources to be able to respond to the breadth of potential responses that we can provide to Canada. I think that gap is an ongoing challenge.”
“It’s no stranger to anybody in the charity sector: How do you make your message as important as any other message? We’re trying to figure out how to best articulate our value to government and non-governmental actors to make sure we can resource our mission effectively,” he says.
Greyshirts volunteer their time, but all travel, food and equipment costs are covered by Team Rubicon. The size and scale of Canada mean that one of the biggest costs for Team Rubicon is moving people on site.
When they decide to respond to an incident before it’s declared a disaster, Team Rubicon fronts the cost to generate and deploy its people before drawing from other sources of funding. This was the case during the Fiona response when Team Rubicon deployed a reconnaissance force to Nova Scotia before the storm hit. The gamble paid off, and the team was front and centre to provide assistance in the immediate aftermath of the post-tropical storm that left thousands without power.
Looking to the future, MacBeth sees Canada at a crossroads in deciding how to best resource disaster response in the country. Team Rubicon is not the answer, but it is part of the answer, he says.
The perfect scenario for Team Rubicon would be to secure permanent funding to support a full-time cadre to allow for an initial surge capacity of people power responding to a disaster in Canada.
“We’re interested in continuing to grow and understanding our capabilities, and offering them to continue to help Canadians. We’re at 103 missions, and we’re continuing to grow so we can be there for even more communities in need,” MacBeth says.
To learn more about Team Rubicon Canada visit Team-Rubicon.ca or follow @TeamRubiconCan on social media.
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