The municipal councillor representing the area impacted by recent wildfires in HRM has requested a staff report on mitigating wildfire risk.
During Tuesday evening’s regional council meeting, Coun. Pam Lovelace put forward a motion asking for a staff report “outlining and prioritizing budgeted and non-budgeted initiatives” to help mitigate and manage wildfire risk to communities.
In her motion, titled ‘Prioritizing Community Safety in HRM,’ Lovelace wrote that community safety must be “strategically elevated and prioritized” in the budget. She said the municipality has been aware of “significant” egress and community evacuation needs for decades.
In addition, residents in communities with limited exits and no piped water for firefighting have identified concerns to HRM. She said some have also been working directly with HRM emergency management officials to develop neighbourhood evacuation plans and to advocate for more dry fire hydrants.
The Evacuation Planning process for communities and neighborhoods has not been designed or delivered for consistent program implementation, nor have Crisis Communications plans or tactics been consistently developed, implemented, or practiced organization-wide.
The development, monitoring, and evaluation of EMO training, practice, and program implementation remains inconsistent and emergent. This was evident during the Upper Tantallon and Hammonds Plains 900 hectares wildfire that destroyed multiple neighborhoods and resulted in the evacuation of over 16,400 residents and destruction of 151 homes and over 200 structures.
‘Enhancing crisis communication capacity’
Lovelace also requested an update to council on “progress to enhance crisis communication capacity.” She said the importance of community safety with regards to wildfire risk mitigation, emergency management, and “everything to do with crisis communications” must be reflected in the municipal budget.
“As we saw over the past…(just) over three weeks, we’ve been in a situation where it is a continuous plethora of communications,” Lovelace said. “And through a lack of focus on crisis communication over time, HRM I think just was not prepared.”
Lovelace said while crisis communications was intentionally put into the strategic priorities plan, it hasn’t yet been realized.
“Whether it’s planning, whether it’s HRFE (Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency), whether it’s our community safety office,” she said.
“To ensure that everybody is on the same page as far as what do we have, what do we need? It will give us a new lens on emergency management operations and crisis communications, not only for this budget. For future budgets.”
‘Volatility of climate change’
While discussing the motion, Coun. Kathryn Morse wondered if an early warning system could be created to alert residents to extremely dry conditions.
“We were sort of talking anecdotally saying what a dry winter we had, what a dry spring we had,” Morse said. “But if there was a way to develop that into a monitoring and a warning system, I think that’s something we could do as a municipality.”
Mayor Mike Savage appreciated the suggestion.
“It’s going to be a lot of dry in our future,” Savage said. “And when it’s not dry, it’s going to be really wet. That’s the volatility of climate change in my view.”
Council passed the motion.
Comfort centres during HRM crisis events
A somewhat related motion was also brought forward to council and approved Tuesday evening. Coun. Patty Cuttell motioned for a staff report about HRM comfort centres during crisis events.
Cuttell said she was motivated to explore the issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona last fall. She described a “loose network” of community halls and municipal facilities that operate in official and unofficial capacities during crisis events in HRM.
But she noted the ability of these venues to operate as comfort centres is dependent on many things. They range from trained volunteers, generators, and communications capabilities to emergency supplies.
“In the 2017 Municipal Emergency Plan, Section 3.3 Community Organizations, it is recognized that “groups and organizations, such as services clubs and volunteer organizations, are a valuable resources for emergency response,” the motion read.
“They will be used to augment HRM’s resources. This will be according to arranged agreements and plans, or as required.”
In addition to an inventory of both HRM and community-owned facilities that could be used as comfort centres, Cuttell requested an evaluation of these facilities and their readiness to respond during a crisis.
“I think many of us get requests from these groups for everything from defibrillators to heat pumps to generators to water systems,” Cuttell said.
“It’s kind of this curious network where I think some facilities are better equipped than others. I don’t really have a real sense within my own district of which community centres have the capabilities to act as comfort centres in a crisis or how they’re staffed and supported through volunteers.”
‘Can’t just have an open room’
She also pointed to the issue of “comfort centre and volunteer deserts”that must be addressed.
“If we’re really serious about the importance of community organizations, of providing comfort centres, of having JEM (joint emergency management) teams involved, then what is our campaign for recruiting people, for supporting people, and for making people feel as if they have an important role to play and ensuring that they have all the capabilities to be effective in an emergency situation,” Cuttell said.
Coun. Paul Russell requested a list of what equipment and supplies are available and required at comfort centres.
“We can’t just have an open room and hope that it would satisfy the needs of what we need,” Russell said.
“So if there is some minimum standard of equipment that would be required for this, that would be helpful.”
The list, Russell said, would need to be updated biannually if not more often as new facilities become available or older ones are no longer operational.
Lovelace said another key issue is ensuring people have transportation to access comfort centres, something that could prove challenging for many residents.
“I think the issue, though, is prioritizing it and ensuring that we’re elevating the importance of community safety and working towards addressing the significant deficits that we had as a municipality to support our residents and businesses through this process and through this massive crisis that we just experienced and will be ongoing for many, many, many months,” Lovelace said.