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Emergency Management

It’s not armageddon…but it could look like it.

Bridges and overpasses collapse. Water and sewer pipes burst. Roads crack and crumble. Buildings become uninhabitable. It’s not Armageddon. It’s not even a natural disaster (though that poses its own risks). It’s the worst-case scenario when aging infrastructure fails, and it leads to serious life safety and health issues. Clearly, failure is not an option. And asset management is the first step towards successful solutions.

It’s funny how we view things differently when working in the world of local government. For most people, I’m guessing they see landscaped boulevards and appreciate the beauty of the trees and flowers. For me, I appreciate the beauty, but I also see the challenges of ongoing maintenance, and I wonder if they have to close lanes to do the work or if they needed to add sprinkling systems to the area. Most people use roads, water and sewer without a thought of the work behind the scenes. I use those services with an appreciation of value for tax dollar. And never again will I buy a house without first checking on the community plan for the area.

It’s a bit of a skewed vision, but it comes from the extra awareness of the complexity and demands of local government operations. In the Fall edition of Exchange, my vision was even more focused than usual as I was hyper aware of asset management and aging infrastructure challenges. My trip to Montreal this summer included shopping and gazing with alarm at multiple overpasses that seemed to be stitched together with patching and metal straps. As we moved along to Winnipeg, I flinched at the extensive damage the winter does to roads and wondered about how the City manages to maintain – let alone replace – an extensive network of roads pitted by potholes.

My vacation became an amateur condition assessment exercise, and my sympathies were with the various communities I visited. It’s tough to grapple with the reality of the challenge to address aging infrastructure, but in Asset Management: From Awareness to Action, we learn from three communities who are taking steps to address the needs in their community. It quickly became evident that even small steps forward are essential and valuable. In Stepping Forward. Stepping Back., we learn that there is progress towards new funding resources, greater awareness of aging infrastructure as a critical risk area, and more collaboration and integration of asset management into regular operations. At the same time, new risks in the area of natural disasters and unfunded liabilities are adding new challenges to the mix. It’s a quagmire for sure.

Recognizing the challenges – and the frustration of being the generation tasked with dealing with such a monumental task – I believe the situation becomes more alarming as we move into election mode. Those who truly understand the funding gap and critical risks of failing infrastructure likely share my shudder when candidates campaign on a “zero tax increase” platform. Even worse are those who say they’ll cut taxes. It shows a blatant lack of understanding of what is truly needed to ensure that the infrastructure we enjoy today is maintained and replaced to provide safe and reliable services. It also tells me the work around communication is not done. There may be growing awareness of the challenges at a Council and staff level, but I look forward to the day when discussion at the local coffee shops is about how we need to look for ways to support financing for replacing infrastructure and build sustainable funding models for all new assets. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills.

Disaster Alert: We’re not ready…yet

It seems like there’s daily news about natural disasters, major emergencies and other crisis situations around the world. It’s hard to measure whether the number of disasters has increased, or if we’re just more aware about what’s going on thanks to communication technology connecting us faster and more personally through social networks. The result is a growing awareness of the impacts and recovery challenges that stem from catastrophic events. This increased awareness leads to opportunities to focus on what the risks are in our communities, how well we are prepared to manage if disaster strikes, and what the role is for local government.

No one can be fully prepared for a catastrophic event, but as we learn in the summer edition of Exchange, there are measures that can help move us towards an increasingly improved position to respond effectively and support recovery. Part of this is through better planning and enhanced preparedness. In Catastrophic Events: We’re not ready…yet, recent studies show that there’s work to be done to improve preparedness strategies. In response, Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) is leading a number of initiatives to work with local and regional governments and First Nations to identify gaps and develop practical solutions. Their approach recognizes the importance of working together – there are multiple agencies and governments involved in emergencies, and individual citizens share a responsibility for personal preparedness. It’s also alarming to realize that the financial impact of a major catastrophe would be devastating due to a current lack of sufficient insurance coverage, and the need to ensure citizens understand that they need their own insurance as the government won’t be paying for everything.

The stories shared in Response Readiness for Small Communities demonstrate that practical solutions are possible, even in small communities with limited resources. The work being done in the District of Sparwood and at the Village of Queen Charlotte showcase how leveraging experience and the resources available through EMBC and the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) can provide staff with the training and assistance they need to be successful when in emergency response mode. I was also moved and impressed by the incredible work being done in High River to recover from the devastation of last year’s flood that involved evacuating the entire town and flood damage to 70% of the community. The power of people working together, sharing expertise and focusing on a shared goal to recover as a community and support each other individually is inspiring.

All of the shared stories also reinforce the importance of effective communication. With my background in crisis communications, in my role teaching the JIBC Information Officer, and in the work I do to develop crisis communications strategies and training, I have witnessed both the success of effective communication in a crisis and the damage wrought by poor communication. With the advent of social media and the increase in community expectations to be kept informed and engaged in any crisis situation, the demands and requirements on local governments will continue to grow. A crisis communication plan along with trained Information Officers and communication teams have become an imperative. It’s equally important to emphasize that this communication starts at the preparedness stage, becomes intense in the midst of the crisis event, and continues throughout the recovery process.

It’s enlightening and reassuring to hear how communities are taking the initiative to keep emergency management and personal preparedness on everyone’s radar – including Councils and Boards, staff and community members. Learning from each other and leveraging the resources available are key to creating the tools needed to assist and support communities when dealing with an emergency, or worse, a catastrophic event. Many thanks to everyone for sharing their stories and highlighting the resources available to support emergency management.