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Mutual aid and cultural competency: collaboration in times of emergency

November 9, 2023
By Haley Nagasaki

Disaster Forum provided a platform to address the importance co-operation and relationship building during times of emergency, from mutual aid to the representation of Indigenous voices.

Wade Kroening and Blake Moser. Photo: Annex Business Media

On the final day of the Disaster Forum conference, Wade Kroening, operations manager for Flint Hills Resources and Blake Moser, MD of Provost and member of the Hardisty Fire Department, spoke on the topic of mutual aid partnerships between community and industry in times of emergency. They presented a case study of the Hardisty Terminal, Canada’s largest crude oil storage facility, surrounding an incident in 2014 when a 330,000-barrel tank caught fire.

While the accident could have had devastating results, instead it presented an entry point into a larger conversation with the regulator, underscored by gaps in communications between the seven multinational oil companies operating in silos at that time within mere meters of each other.

Through the slow-moving of industry, a mutual aid agreement was finally reached in 2018. The Hardisty mutual aid agreement (HMAG) helped to determine the systems and procedures for assistance during crises and emphasized the need for communication with local municipalities and regulatory agencies.

Moser explained how the team also leveraged energy sector groups, such as the Alberta Energy Regulator, in order to meet their requirements.


Mutual aid, while not mandated, is a complicated topic that requires support. “People have to be passionate about moving it forward,” said Kroening, “people like Blake.” By partnering with the “paid, on-call fire department,” Moser said as opposed to volunteer, resources could be mobilized from both sides of the border in case of emergencies. However, these efforts must be pre-planned.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Kroening, “and we still have a ways to go.”

The complex nature of multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency issues requires strong relationships and collaboration. This can lead to enhanced safety, efficiency, reputation, trust and innovation.

Fire is the most extreme threat faced by this critical infrastructure site, as well as odour complaints and cyber security. Anything that seeps into the neighbouring environment falls under the purview of the municipality, therefore incidents involving both industry and the municipality require different response efforts.

The issue is further complicated by the presence of “virtual liaisons” and competing companies headquartered in different locations, such as Calgary and the United States, all seeking information about their respective interests.

The HMAG incentive requires ongoing attention and action, Kroening explains; “it will die on the vine if we don’t stay on it,” jeopardizing the safety of well-being of the industry, and most importantly, the community.

Jeff Beddome, Alberta Health Services. Photo: Annex Business Media

Cultural resilience

Jeff Beddome, senior advisor of emergency disaster management for the Indigenous wellness core of Alberta Health Services, delivered an impactful talk about the need for sensitive and effective co-developed evacuation centres.

The systems currently in place are colonial, and Indigenous communities are often disproportionally affected by emergencies such as wildfires and flooding, with a documented 138 events per year and rising. Instances of flooding have increased by 92 per cent between 2009 and 2014 within First Nation and Métis settlements, Beddome said, who described emergency management from both a Western and an Indigenous point of view.

Indigenous views, circular in nature, revolve around relationships, seasons and protocols. While the Western method, with its quadrants and timelines, house agendas, policies and economics.

Beddome presented the four pillars of emergency management, yet when seen as an infographic, demonstrated how health serves as the brace for the pillars and includes physical, emotional, mental and spiritual states of being.

The wellbeing of the group can enhanced by equal representation and the recognition of all voices.

‘Health, the bracing system of our pillars.’ Photo: Annex Business Media

Beddome spoke on the need for Indigenous voices in all EOCs, reception or registration centres and evacuation centres from the various 48 nations in Alberta, in addition to the voices from eight Métis settlements. These centres must respect, acknowledge and accommodate cultural differences among Indigenous groups, including access to traditional foods and sacred ceremonial tools.

“The Western world says we need process,” said Beddome. “That we need to be identified and labelled when arriving to reception centres.” Though perhaps what’s lost on the current system is the triggering nature of this practice and the trauma that can resurface while being categorized by figures of authority in uniform.

For this reason, “cultural competency training,” and “trauma informed care,” must be incorporated into these systems and processes.

In a positive development, Alberta has recently recognized certain sacred spiritual practices. “We don’t deny prayer for other cultural groups,” he said, in support of the regulatory shift.

Smudging is now protected under traditional rights and is an exempt practice under the Tobacco, Smoking and Vaping Reduction Act legislation. This means that in any hospital in Alberta, the healing practice of burning sage and other sacred herbs is permitted at bedside. This helps to preserve culture and tradition, increase ease and comfort, and must also be accessible to evacuees and people who have been displaced from their homes during emergencies.

Building connections within Indigenous communities “is the biggest challenge,” Beddome said. Part of the solution is to get into those communities to begin a welcoming dialogue with residents in order to practice cultural competency and find out “what we can do to be a culturally safe environment.”

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