Dealing with Disaster
Prince George, B.C.- Michael Higgins is no stranger to emergency planning, he has more than two decades of experience in that field. But when he started his new job as Emergency Services Co-Ordinator with the Regional District of Fraser Fort George in April, his first call to action caught him a little off guard.
“When I got the call, I thought, this is a test” says Higgins. That call was about the Little Bobtail Lake fire, and it was unusual in that such a major fire could happen so early in the fire season. “It was one of those things that was a little surprising because normally , at that time of the year ( early May) it’s not the type of fire you see on the landscape at that time of the year.”
Being in charge of Emergency Services for rural areas poses its own set of challenges says Higgins “usually smaller pockets of smaller populations that are usually farther away from urban centres and don’t always have the same amount of capacity when it comes to local community resources or things like communication whether it’s high speed internet or otherwise, so those pose their individual challenges, plus people in their rural areas tend to be very independent”. He says they may only contact the Regional District for assistance during an emergency only when they get to a point where they can no longer handle it themselves and that can makes things more complicated.
Higgins says it isn’t easy to convince people they should be prepared for any emergency “It’s one of those circumstances where I think it’s in the back of everyone’s mind that it could happen, but until it actually happens to a person, or it’s very close to them, they don’t really understand all the challenges that go along for being ready for such an event.”
He says one of the things they talk about to people on a regular basis is having a “go pack” ready. “Knowing you can go to your closet and pull out a bag that has things like your important paper work, your insurance documentation, things like that, available to get out at a moments notice, because sometimes, as was the case in this incident (Little BobTail Lake fire) there isn’t a lot of lead time. The recommendation for an evacuation alert went to an order in less than 30 minutes.” That left little time for those who were ordered to leave the area to get ready for their departure. “It’s having that peace of mind that you can grab that bag or that Tupperware container that has those copies of things you’re going to need in the event you have to leave home.”
Higgins has set a simple set of goals to spread the word throughout the Regional District when it comes to being prepared:
- make people aware of the specific hazards around them
- have residents accept their strengths and their vulnerabilities to respond and recover from an emergency, for example, having the proper insurance for certain hazards
- make sure people know what to do to take self protective actions whether it be staying in their existing shelter, or evacuating the area
- make sure people are ready to receive support or have support offered to them “People have to understand they are not in it alone and there are supports and assistance available so they don’t feel overwhelmed.”
In the Regional District of Fraser Fort George, emergency services are expanding beyond the annual flood threats and wildfire possibilities “We are seeing more heat and extreme weather events, more intensity of wind, things along those lines” says Higgins, “So we have to be aware that our hazards profile is kind of changing.”
“People need to realize there are small things they can do along the way to make things better when bad things happen” says Higgins “One of the keys is community involvement, we have to look at our communities as that source of strength when something happens or is about to happen. In our somewhat insular society, we’re not doing that as much, and I think that’s something we have to get back to. ” He says it could be as simple as offering a generator to a neighbour whose power is out “Knowing what people around you are facing is also helpful.”
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