Residents at increased risk during extreme weather and crisis events in HRM will soon be able to add their names to a voluntary Vulnerable Persons Registry (VPR).
Developing such a registry for emergency management purposes was discussed and unanimously passed by Halifax regional council on Tuesday.
A vulnerable persons registry is intended to support those “who experience exponential increase in life safety risk due to extreme weather and other crisis events.” Such programs have been successfully implemented in a few other Canadian jurisdictions.
As reported here last fall, vulnerable people like those with physical or mental disabilities are at an increased risk of harm during emergency events.
“I first got the request for something like this after Fiona when a resident reached out to me and said that she had a son — I believe he’s in his late twenties — who is bedridden, disabled. She was worried about her roof blowing off during Fiona,” Coun. Lisa Blackburn told council.
“So her plan was to make sure that her sneakers were at the front door so that she could jump into her sneakers and run the three or four blocks to the fire station at the end of the road. We just sort of shook our heads and said, ‘that’s not a plan.’ Well, now we’ve got a plan and there will be many folks that will be very pleased to see this.”
‘May save their life’
A staff report noted such registries are used to provide first responders and volunteers with information about vulnerable people during emergency events like severe weather and prolonged power outages.
The report said power blackouts experienced during Hurricane Fiona last September highlighted the importance of knowing where vulnerable people who rely on power for medically assisted devices are living.
“Due to the recent increase in severe weather events across Canada, there has been a significant gap identified by HRM community members and many advocacy groups to support vulnerable persons during emergencies,” the report said.
“An effective response strategy is diversifying community preparedness tools that provide equitable access to emergency support. Vulnerable populations may not be able to assist themselves during times of crisis. Having a system in place which provides responding agencies limited health information on an individual may save their life.”
Emergency management staff can also use the information from the registry when preparing emergency plans.
“I know that during Fiona, we had the situation down in Moser River where we had people running out of oxygen, people with no power to run their sleep apparatus machines and stuff,” Coun. David Hendsbee said.
“It was hairy scary at one time. And now [having] this come forward, it’s going to be quite helpful.”
Crisis events will continue
The municipality’s hfxALERT mass notification system was also brought up. Coun. Shawn Cleary said in the aftermath of the recent wildfires, many HRM residents wondered why it wasn’t used. He wanted to know how many residents had signed up to receive the alerts.
Erica Fleck, HRM’s director of emergency management, said there was a 5,000-person increase on the hfxALERT system the first week of the wildfire. She wasn’t sure how much it had grown since then.
“What I do know is we still don’t have enough. Part of the emergency management five-year plan is to get that citizen sign-up to at least 60% to be able to use it more effectively,” Fleck told councillors.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been continually having these crisis events and we know that we will continue to have them…Our sign up does increase. But we need to be able to do more. More community outreach. More media. More everything to be able to better utilize the system.”
‘Ready to roll’
The VPR would also be customizable to a small group of impacted residents. As an example, Fleck said if a planned power outage was taking place one night in a specific area of HRM, they’d have the ability to selectively contact only vulnerable people from that community.
“We can just send out one push on my phone to say… please be prepared and to contact us if you need anything. Something as simple as that,” Fleck said. “And then obviously to let them know that we are coming to help during an event.”
Coun. Paul Russell wondered about reaching those without the means to receive communications during an emergency. That could be because they don’t own smartphones, telephones, or have access to internet service. It could also be that without power, they have no contact with the outside world.
Fleck explained that during an emergency event, they’d reach out in all ways possible to those on the VPR. If they can’t make contact, someone would be sent to their location on a priority basis.
“If they need power to be able to survive for oxygen, if they are say insulin dependent and they need to go to the drugstore, all of those things are taken into consideration,” Fleck said. “We blast as many volunteers out as we can at one time to do all those knocks on the doors.”
Fleck told councillors that should they approve the creation of a VPR, “we are ready to roll, pretty well.”
“The issue I have is capacity, obviously, with a staff of myself and one other,” Fleck said. “If council should approve the funding for the position, as soon as we can get it through the HR process, then we can be a couple of weeks after that to get started.”
‘Making sure this gets done’
The staff report notes the program is voluntary, meaning it’s based on self-referral.
“I do know that there is a financial impact to this and that it is unbudgeted, but that in no way should deter us from making sure that this gets done,” Coun. Cathy Deagle Gammon said.
The registry would be available to any resident without 24-hour support who experiences severe difficulty with any of the following:
•mental health conditions
•any resident who requires electricity for life-sustaining equipment such as life support, oxygen, dialysis, etc.
Residents who aren’t eligible:
•Those receiving 24-hour support from a caregiver or home care aide (exceptions may apply)
•People receiving care or assistance from a long-term care home or supportive housing facility
•Residents under the age of 18 and receive parent/guardian support (exceptions may apply).
• Children with intensive needs or children that require electricity for life-sustaining equipment can be considered for eligibility.
How it would work
The staff report outlines how residents would sign up for the VPR:
Potential registrants would call 311, EM staff or complete an online form, providing information. Once received, designated staff would then reach out to confirm/verify the information. At this point, if the registrant met the proposed applicability requirements, they would be added to the registry.
During an emergency event, Emergency Management staff will be able to run a report from the registry with an overview of vulnerable persons address, and notes on vulnerability. EM staff will then engage with the appropriate resources (HRFE, police, volunteers, etc) to organize a vulnerable person’s wellness check or other applicable response.
The report notes that while a Vulnerable Persons Registry Act (Bill 202) was recently introduced in the Nova Scotia Legislature, that bill hasn’t yet been scheduled for second reading.
The municipal registry will be separate to be used only for emergency management purposes by HRM’s emergency management staff.