Councillors want a staff report on plans to evacuate schools in the municipality in response to community concerns following the wildfire in Tantallon.

Hammonds Plains-St. Margaret’s Coun. Pam Lovelace brought a motion to council on Tuesday asking for a staff report “with details on and recommendations for emergency preparedness for CSAP and HRCE schools in HRM.” That report is to include:

1/ emergency evacuation plans or timeline to deliver evacuation plans for each school;
2/ roles, responsibilities, and resources expected of HRM to implement and support those plans;
3/ timeline for tabletop exercises and Command Post/Full Scale exercises and training for evacuation involving students and staff leaving school property and relocating; and,
4/ school community communications plans.

The wildfire that started in May threatened two schools: Hammonds Plains Consolidated Elementary School and Madeline Symonds Middle School.

“Those schools were saved, which is good. The schools weren’t in session because it was a weekend which is good,” Lovelace said.

“Sounds to me that we’re relying on luck here.”

Lovelace said she asked the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) about the plan to relocate students and staff from these schools.

“Relocation involves all students and staff moving on foot from the school property to another nearby site,” Lovelace said, quoting HRCE.

“That is not good enough. We won’t be as lucky the next time. So I would like to get some plans in place to understand what resources are available, can be available, and what’s needed to ensure the safety of children and staff. Because I’m sorry, but walking down Hammonds Plains Road in the middle of a wildfire is not a relocation and evacuation plan.”

Parents don’t know the plan either

The Halifax Examiner reported on these concerns from people in the White Hills neighbourhood in August:

Julianna Davies’ daughter was a student at Madeline Symonds Middle School (MSMS) on White Hills Run when the Tantallon wildfire broke out in late May. The fire and evacuation of the area happened on a Sunday, but Davies wondered what might’ve happened if it had been a school day.

She asked the principal at MSMS about the plan to evacuate the school in the event of a wildfire. He didn’t share one.

“I don’t believe there is one,” Davies said. “But if there is a plan, what is it and how can you have a viable evacuation plan in a situation like this, without another exit at the back of the subdivision?”

The Examiner asked the province and HRCE for the emergency access plan for the school.

“We cannot share the EMP for MSMS publicly for a variety of confidentiality and privacy reasons. The internal plans are comprehensive and pertinent details are shared annually with families,” spokesperson Lindsey Bunin replied.

Davies said she’d never seen the plan or those “pertinent details.”

Lovelace hopes to get those details, and push HRCE and CSAP to create better plans for all schools in HRM.

Concerns about jurisdiction

But her council colleagues didn’t think they had the power to tell the province what to do.

Coun. Shawn Cleary moved an amendment to Lovelace’s motion. He hoped to make any action conditional on cooperation with and agreed-upon funding from the provincial government.

“We can’t usurp the authority of another order of government,” Cleary said.

“We we can’t enforce a plan on a group that is controlled by the province.”

Lovelace argued it’s HRM’s responsibility to make sure there are emergency plans in place.

“Our property taxpayers expect us to deliver emergency management services,” Lovelace said.

Coun. Patty Cuttell worried waiting for a funding agreement would hold this up for years.

“If this is a game of chess, I say let’s start moving the pieces on the board,” Cuttell said. “Because otherwise we’re just stuck here in stalemate, and we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Chief administrative officer Cathie O’Toole said no matter how council worded the motion, she’d start a conversation with the provincial government.

“We cannot go outside what is our authority, we cannot step into the province’s authority, and we would be coming back with what we gleaned from this exercise in terms of the current emergency preparedness for CSAP and HRCE,” O’Toole said.

“Right now, we do not know what extent you know, they would be willing to engage with us on this exercise, but I suspect they would probably be very open to the discussion.”

Cleary’s amendment failed by a vote of 11-5, and Lovelace’s motion passed 14-2.

Councillors Becky Kent and Paul Russell voted no. They argued it’s not worth the effort to produce a report on something HRM ultimately can’t control. Kent suggested a letter to the province might be just as effective.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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