Crisis Management in Canada’s Public Sector

27 November 2017

The quantity of natural catastrophes such as wildfires, droughts, flooding and tornadoes has increased across Canada within the past few years. Depending on the situation, an effective public relations or crisis management response might be required from all levels of government, to mitigate the impact of a natural disaster and keep communities safe.

Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016 was recognized as the largest insured disaster in Canadian history at ~CAD3.5bBn.Over 90,000 residents were evacuated; more than 1,800 structures were destroyed and 2,400 residents were affected.

A “crisis” is defined as an uncontrolled emergency. It is a situation that somehow challenges a community’s sense of tradition, values, safety and security.

Federal Government Responsibility in Crisis Management

Crisis management is a core responsibility of the federal government. Within Canada, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness is a key department that coordinates crisis management activities in partnership with various federal, provincial and municipal organizations. The federal government is dedicated to working collaboratively with provinces and territories to help them support their communities when a disaster strikes. It also allocates funds to provincial and municipal governments to invest in emergency preparedness.

The Emergency Management Act (EMA)1  outlines the responsibility for federal institutions to undertake mandate-specific risk assessments and planning activities in all four areas of crisis management:

  1. Prevention and Mitigation: to eliminate the risk of disaster, to protect people’s lives, property, and the environment, and to reduce economic disruption. It includes structural measures to mitigate risk such as constructing flood ways and dykes, and non-structural procedures like building codes, land-use planning, and insurance incentives
  2. Preparedness: to be ready to respond to a disaster and manage its consequences through measures taken prior to an event
  3. Response: to act during or immediately before or after a disaster to manage its consequences
  4. Recovery: to repair or restore conditions to an acceptable level through measures taken after a disaster

The EMA was revised and approved by all levels of government to ensure relevant emergency preparedness and response time to crises in Canada. The revised framework establishes a common approach for a range of collaborative emergency management initiatives from the federal to municipal level.

Provincial and Municipal Government Responsibility in Crisis Management

Municipal governments play a vital role in crisis management as local officials are the first responders in emergency situations.  According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, municipalities handle 95% of all crises in Canada and are responsible for public security and emergency management when situations arise.2  Consequently, they are required to develop their own emergency management program that includes training and public awareness and follows the governing policy specific to their province.

During crisis situations, most communication comes from the provincial and municipal governments. The provincial Public Affairs Bureau (PAB) is responsible for updating communication to the emergency operations centres (EOC), which are established by provincial and local governments in each region. The PAB provides current information about the crisis at hand and includes where and how to access support and services, and when to coordinate re-entry if evacuation is required. The EOCs, are a 24/7 communication centre and issue updates about progress of the crisis, evacuation notices for specific communities and information on recommended destinations for evacuees.

Emergency notifications are released through various platforms such as a provincial government’s news releases, provincial emergency alert notifications, emergency information phone lines, municipal press conferences and phone lines, and social media channels. In the past few years, social media has evolved as a highly effective medium for communication among local governments and their residents. 72% of municipalities in Ontario use social media to communicate with their population.3

Crisis Management Issues in the Past

Every stage of crisis management requires a different approach and solution to ensure that there is an effective plan in place. Following the Fort McMurray Wildfire in 2016, a group of consultants completed a post-crisis incident assessment for some of the recent catastrophic events in Canada. In their assessment they found that:

  • During the floods in Alberta in 2013, inadequate training for task force members and elected officials, absence of an effective provincial framework and ineffective incident management software system with governments, were key issues in their crisis management.4
  • During the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire, there were communication gaps and delays in early days of the blaze, as well as mixed messages to residents about the need to evacuate, inhibiting effective crisis management.5

To overcome these challenges, municipal and provincial governments are taking steps to improve their disaster preparedness. Many regions are now implementing a comprehensive and focused training program to create awareness at all levels of government. Key programs include incident command training, EOC operations training, recovery and disaster recovery program training, emergency social service training and crisis communication trainings. For example, during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire crisis, several private-public relation agencies supported communications between the municipality, province, premier’s office, NGOs, residents and first responders. At the Regional Emergency Operations Centre in the municipality of Wood Buffalo, 68 communication practitioners were positioned by a PR firm to support communication in the area. Another firm deployed its team to regional EOCs to serve the communication needs from evacuation to re-entry for Fort McMurray.6

Conclusion

The recent catastrophic events in Canada have caused significant damage to property and populations. Studies have shown that due to the varying nature of crisis events, effective management of communication and operation remain a key challenge for public sector authorities. To overcome these issues, municipal and provincial governments are implementing an “all hazard approach” investing in the training and skill development of select people to ensure improved preparedness for future emergency events.

At JLT Canada, our clients come first. As your partner, we work with you to find solutions that are most beneficial to your municipality. For more information on risk management offerings or related advice, please contact the Public Sector team, at ClientFirst@jltcanada.com.