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Officials have a plan to deal with disasters

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on emergency preparedness in Central Alberta.

Though the statistical odds of an ice storm or blizzard shutting down Red Deer for days on end are fairly slim, it never hurts to have a plan just in case it does happen.

Recently, ice fog and hoar frost on power lines and trees played a role in disrupting power for 3,000 customers in the Red Deer, Lacombe, Bowden and Olds area.

But what if Red Deer was frozen solid under a record ice storm, or snowed in as never before in a blizzard for the ages?

That’s where municipal emergency management departments come in.

Karen Mann, City of Red Deer Emergency Management co-odinator, and Ric Henderson, Red Deer County Emergency Management co-ordinator, are both charged in their municipalities with keeping an up-to-date plan and making sure they are ready to respond to any danger.

Within the first 24 hours of an ice storm, electricity is likely to become the most affected.

“If the power were to go out, obviously the electrical utility is going to be out there on the front line,” said Mann. “Their No. 1 concern is always public safety, just like every department. They would be assessing the damage, assessing the impacts and determining a course of action for restoring power in a logical manner.”

Meanwhile, the city has an emergency operations centre where the team that runs it would assemble and look at any impacts the situation presented, starting with public safety, then property and city businesses.

“They support the front line operations on the sites,” said Mann. “They’re not the ones up the power pole or the firefighter on the front lines; they’re supporting that through planning, logistics, operational and financial support and overall governance, as well as public information.”

Henderson agreed a power outage would be the likely result of an ice storm and while in the city it is a public utility, the county is dependent on power companies and how long they take to get things back up.

“We would certainly be in contact with the power providers and see how they’re making out,” said Henderson.

Another key component of emergency response is public awareness. Henderson said when something goes wrong, letting the public know what is happening is crucial.

In the winter, the city encourages residents to have an emergency kit for their vehicles, and make sure their homes are prepared for the loss of utilities, including power and gas. As well, a 72-hour emergency kit at home, which includes three days of food and water, is recommended.

“One thing with a rural population is people are much better prepared,” said Henderson. “When we talk about personal preparedness to farm people and the 72-hour kit, they go ‘We’re prepared for a lot longer than that.’”

Mann said the last major disaster in Red Deer that launched the city’s emergency management operations centre into action was the 2005 Father’s Day Flood.

“We’ve had some smaller incidents in between, but that was the last one we operated the emergency management operations centre for formally,” said Mann.

The city did open the operations centre up in the ramp up to reports of tornadoes and funnel clouds in July 2011.

“We look at the situation and decided it was better to get a few people in the know and in place and if it turned out to be nothing, then it was an exercise,” said Mann.

Although it has been more than seven years since the last emergency, the city stays prepared. People across all departments are trained during the down time between emergencies.

“We work on planning, exercising and preparing throughout the year,” said Mann. “Any time we have new staff we train them and any time we’re training them, we’re usually integrating other people.”

The county is no stranger to emergencies, said Henderson, the most recent of which was the July 2011 tornado in which nobody was injured.

“The county is in good shape when it comes to disaster events,” said Henderson. “We’ve had our fair share and we know the process. It doesn’t matter what it is, be it a tornado, train derailment or flood, the process to deal with it is always the same.”

Aside from monitoring local disasters, Mann said they look at emergencies and the response to them in places all over the country and the world. There are lessons to be learned from disasters such as the Slave Lake fire or Hurricane Sandy.

“Individuals have to be prepared, the city has to be prepared, the province has to be prepared and we have to work with our regional partners to be prepared,” said Mann. “It’s all one big web and pretty well entangled.”

Red Deer city and county both have municipal emergency management plans that delegates how the city would respond to emergencies from any hazard.

As well, individual utilities have their own plans for how they would respond and restore their services in the event of an emergency.

Effectively the emergency management plan is an umbrella document that has smaller plans that provide more specifics, but feed into the main plan.

“We do exercises and test our plan, at minimum, on an annual basis,” said Mann.

The last emergency operations exercise the city ran was on June 22.

“It went really well,” said Mann. “It was actually the first exercise we’ve had since we brought in our new municipal emergency management plan and it was a great opportunity for our staff and partners to get together and work through scenarios and how they would address complex situations.”

Scenarios are run routinely to keep people on their toes, but to also work through any potential kinks. These scenarios ponder what happens and range from simply sitting down and discussing the steps to department wide run-throughs of potential disasters and the corresponding response.

Specifically in an ice storm, both Mann and Henderson said personal safety becomes an issue. They cited the Ontario and Quebec ice storm of 1998 — where people would bring barbecues or generators inside and would burn houses down or carbon monoxide poisoning would indirectly cause deaths — as an example of lessons to be learned during an emergency.

There are small table top scenario discussions where a few people get into a room and discuss what the response would be and who would need to be involved. There are also large scale exercises, which are run primarily by the emergency management operations centre.

“We ramp it up, we get the phones ringing, we send fake phone calls and emails to simulate what would happen in a real emergency and get them putting their emergency management response hats on,” said Mann.

In the event of an emergency, the county would be in contact with the City of Red Deer Emergency Services and the emergency management office.

“Certainly when there is limited resource, you want to make sure you’re sharing,” said Henderson. “There is a co-ordinated effort.”

And while both the city and the county are prepared for emergencies should they arise, there is never enough that can be done ahead of time.

“There is always more prep work that can be done,” said Henderson. “There is always training going on, there is always relationships to build and we have relationships with all those non-government organizations, like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. It’s a lot of practising.”



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