Lessons observed: Looking back on decades of emergency management
April 17, 2023
By Haley Nagasaki
30-year emergency manager Ernest MacGillivray reflects on how the field has changed over the years, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead.
Ernest MacGillivray began working in the New Brunswick provincial emergency management agency in the summer of 1991, moving up to director in the year 2000. He spent nine years as the director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, and was then appointed to the provincial Emergency Services Branch, a position he held until 2013.
MacGillivray‘s previous work experience included 10 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, and since his retirement from the provincial government in 2017, he has had advisory roles with the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network, and St. John Ambulance.
Looking back at his three decades of public service and time spent in leadership roles, MacGillivray now comments on what we’ve learned since the turn of the century; what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.
MacGillivray describes two separate focuses of emergency management. One being continuity of government, as in keeping government functioning for society to continue functioning. This is less about service delivery and more about interjurisdictional and inter-agency co-ordination, he explains. There’s also the community preparedness side, now perhaps better described as community disaster resilience, or outreach, and is essential for building local capacity to manage emergencies. Both these areas benefit from close working relationships across mandates, jurisdictional boundaries, and levels of government.
Regardless of the era in which an event occurs, formal and informal relationships among intervening organizations and individuals in the field have always provided a significant advantage in times of need. Because emergency response occurs from a municipal rather than federal charge, knowing who to call, and who you are calling, can provide important benefits.
During the Eastern Canada ice storm in 1998, MacGillivray recalls receiving a call from an emergency management colleague in Brossard, Que., who had sent an official request to Quebec City three days prior, but had yet to receive a response.
“People were freezing in the dark there, and what they really needed was firewood,” he recalls.
MacGillivray arranged to have a tractor trailer load of firewood from a nearby farm sent to a mall parking lot within 24-hours.
“That’s an example of the official chain not working,” he says, “but of prioritizing certain requests, sourcing resources, and arranging the logistics to have those resources delivered.” A previous relationship proved advantageous in this instance, and in many like it over the years.
Communication behaves as the connective tissue during catastrophes, and the ways in which people stay connected has of course evolved since the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, mobile communications was a game changer for the field of emergency management.
Tech and communications
Communications within the leadership of affected communities may be bolstered by personal relationships, but we are dependent on voice and data communications systems.
New Brunswick built a robust analog public safety radio system in the 1980s. The system had standby power, backup battery power and could operate independent of the power grid for a number of days, MacGillivray says. The system was engineered to be survivable for an extreme event and proved invaluable during the 1998 ice storm, numerous flood events, and Hurricane Arthur in 2014.
Radio systems have since been modernized and expanded such that there are multiple pathways and inter-service interoperability. “I know that new architecture is more robust than old architecture in terms of these sites being all connected together,” he says. “So, if one pathway goes down, you can still connect that tower through another route.” Most agencies can communicate seamlessly with one another in all areas of the province. These new capabilities have proven to be a force multiplier, and also provide a much greater level of worker safety.
“But there’s a caveat,” he continues. “And that is people are very dependent on mobile communications now.” Mobile communications is addictive. It provides great and essential capabilities, until it breaks.
A few years ago, when Hurricane Arthur ripped across the East Coast, power lines were down for about a week. In this instance, 400,000 customers were without electricity from anywhere between three days to three weeks. “But that happened on the first of July, so it was no big deal. People got out their barbecues and their guitars. But if that were to happen in the winter, it’s a totally different scenario,” says MacGillivray. Needless to say, people now are very dependent on their digital devices and continuous connectivity.
National mitigation strategies and humanitarian resources
Perhaps one of the most significant developments over the last decade in emergency management in Canada is the roll out of the National Disaster Mitigation Program, with significant new funding from the Federal Government.
“Now hundreds of millions are being invested on an annual basis throughout a combination of federal, provincial and municipal funding; and that just didn’t exist previously.”
MacGillivray is aware of the essential nature of this funding, because “if you want to be more resilient, you need to invest in both structural and non-structural mitigation,” he says.
In contrast to national spending that’s on the rise, there’s also a recognition in the field that fewer and fewer people are willing to volunteer their time, especially as the leading demographic ages; “Young people aren’t getting on the bus to help with us so much,” MacGillivray says. This leaves smaller and rural communities at greater risk.
MacGillivray believes more support is needed in the field of emergency management, including areas such as psychosocial support and mental health. Recently, the federal government through its Humanitarian Worker Program, invested $150 million to build capacity in the not-for-profit sector, including investments in search and rescue, the Canadian Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and St. John Ambulance. The hope is that these investments will result in a more robust volunteer sector that can help in times of emergency.
An important lesson came from the ice storm incident of 1998. There is limited capacity to help at the national level for large-scale or catastrophic events. The federal government ultimately deployed the military to help, particularly in eastern Ontario and Quebec. Troops were sent to New Brunswick as well, less based on actual need than as a political imperative. The view at the time was that troops really weren’t needed, but they helped with debris clearance and brought a good deal of comfort to the most affected areas, MacGillivray says.
In the years since, a military liaison officer has been permanently located within the emergency management agency to enable joint planning and operations.
MacGillivray recalls one of the Prime Minister’s communication directors telling him: “You might think you’re making decisions based on operational requirements, or perceived needs, but that’s not the way the world works.” Accommodating political interests is a legitimate concern, he says. Government needs to be seen to be having a positive effect in addressing peoples’ needs in a crisis. If the government loses the confidence of the people, they might not pay much attention to what government advises them to do or not do.
One thing MacGillivray takes pride in is the close working relationship between the military and civilian authorities. New Brunswick’s relatively small size is a factor, as everyone seemingly has “a brother or a cousin involved somewhere,” he says. In small jurisdictions, every emergency is personal.
Tackling increased risk
While funding, capacity and interoperability have improved in recent years, risk is still increasing. MacGillivray believes this is for numerous reasons, including climate change, globalization, and long, complex supply chains. Natural hazards present the greatest risks, but dependence on grids and technology, as well as political instability present additional risks.
Moreover, increased heat, particularly in the Northeast, means more extreme precipitation events, resulting in overland flooding, flash flooding events, and sea level rise. The extreme weather events we are experiencing routinely now have lower atmospheric pressure, which raises water levels and causes more violent storm surge events and coastal erosion. More heat means more moisture, more precipitation and more frequent emergency events.
Communities must become more resilient by working on their relationships with critical infrastructure owners and operators, building to higher standards and fostering a more professional emergency management practice. “The business case is it’s better to invest in preparedness and resilience than to just wait for a bad day and then help write the cheques,” MacGillivray says. We must invest to reduce future costs.
People used to be more self-sufficient, but convenience shelved much of that former wisdom. As a result, we have become dependent, especially on connectivity, which “went from being a perk to an essential service,” he says. Still the telecommunication sector is not legally bound to provide guaranteed levels of service the way the ambulance service does, for example.
Possible solutions, as he sees it, would be to build a more resilient not-for-profit sector so we might collectively address the human resource challenges that we see during emergencies, in addition to promoting more robust emergency management programs that focus on community resilience and relationship building.
“Building personal relationships and knowing who you’re calling,” he says, “that’s the fabric of a lot of what’s going on here.”
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