By Paul-Émile Auger and Sarah-Maude Guindon
Sharing insights about the future of Emergency Management (EM) as a profession, Paul-Émile Auger and Sarah-Maude Guindon develop their observations through informal interviews with some Quebec EM practitioners.
The topic proposed for the spring issue of HazNet caught our attention as young professionals in the field of emergency management. By discussing the subject together, each of us approaching it in our own way, we formulated observations and intuitions. It quickly became apparent to us that we approached the subject with two different but complementary mindsets, influenced by our professional context. This discussion created a conversation on paper, the fruit of our thoughts.
P-É: I found out about the theme shortly after the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020 in Davos. The 2020 WEF Global Risk Report (WEF, 2020) clearly illustrated a shift around the globe. Put simply, environmental disasters such as the Australian Firescapes involving high-impact images, the Fort MacMurray Beast that totaled neighborhoods, or wildfires in the seemingly boundless Amazon are now at the heart of worldwide risk perception. For the first time in the history of the Global Risks Perception Survey, environmental concerns dominate the top long-term risks by likelihood among members of the World Economic Forum’s multistakeholder community. Of course, there is a gap between perception and reality, especially when cute wombats are involved. Still, we can ask where we are going with these catastrophic-scale disasters, especially as Emergency Managers in Canada.
S-M: As an emergency management professional, I felt challenged by the theme: how do I perceive my profession? How do I feel its pulse? Am I supposed to have a clear idea of it? Even if I work as an emergency management professional, I don’t have much time to keep up with all the research and publication related to it, outside what is directly related to the projects our team works on. Eventually some catching up is needed. This is how I read the theme of the Natural Hazards Center’s Annual Workshop: Active Hope, “because the concept of active hope is about envisioning a future worth hoping for and then taking the action to achieve it.” And just like that, a word was put on what I was observing and what I was feeling about our profession.
Discussion – Paul-Émile: Connecting the Global Context and Local EM Initiatives
As we live in an era of climate change, eco-anxiety, and environmental mega-disasters, our future is not set in stone. Mapping possible paths for Emergency Management requires, in my mind, mobilizing the worldview of the people we serve. For me, since I’m serving First Nations (FN) in Quebec, it means that I’d need to explore the special relationship between the global context and local EM initiatives. I hoped to achieve this with my interview for this article. I chose to explore these themes with fellow EM Coordinator Colleen Labillois from the community of Listuguj to enrich my perspective and to get a fresh out-of-the-box view.
The beautiful Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj, Quebec, experienced many floods in recent years and decided to organize. When duty called, Colleen took up the mantle of Emergency Management Coordinator. In 2020, Listuguj is poised to be a leader in Emergency Management amongst First Nations in Quebec.
Colleen Labillois frames the importance of finding a link between the community and a larger context: “I believe that, generally speaking, there is a real hunger for change; however, there is no clear path to inducing the changes needed on a ‘global’ scale to have any type of meaningful impact.” This paradox is somewhat present, as the motto ‘think globally, act locally’ did not deliver results in the early 2000s to tackle climate change and the environmental crisis. She adds: “The opportunity comes at the local/individual level to ‘champion’ change only when an issue is receiving multi-media attention. Therein lies an opportunity for local EM Managers to fan the flames of change.”
I ask whether community members’ experiences inspire change or hope along those lines. She says: “My understanding of Emergency Management tells me there are two sides to community members’ experiences with catastrophic events. Those directly impacted by an event and those who rise to the occasion and jump in to respond/assist in whatever way they can. From either perspective, community members’ experiences inspire change and hope within the community by strengthening social bonds ‘organically’ through ‘shared’ experience.” This discussion of recognising events on a collective basis rings true, emphasizing the feeling of community through challenge and recognition, and enabling long-term resiliency.
What if often we create our own self-defeating narratives, excluding impacted people and focusing on a one-sided relationship? Colleen adds: “It is important to maintain a level playing field between the two groups (impacted|responder) to avoid one side appearing ‘victimized’ and the other ‘superior’. By consciously tearing down class barriers (social, economic), gateways can open to allow long-term change. My experience with capacity building (…) has allowed me to see community members rise to the potential challenges we face with contagious optimism and hope that, as a community, we will come out of a situation stronger.”
How can we step up and bridge the gap of a top-down victim-savior dichotomy? She says: “The ‘acceptance’ of diversified (local/Traditional) knowledge from multiple sources would serve to motivate individuals and groups to contribute to developing EM recognition. This complementary knowledge is well understood in FN communities, and could be tapped to underscore the social, economic, and cultural implications of any action taken related to emergencies.”
A community, a region, a province, or a country that has ‘ownership’ and responsibility for its own Emergency Management systems and plans is in a better position to identify gaps (bumps in the road) and take proactive measures to ensure these same gaps do not become ‘roadblocks’ in responding to a catastrophic event. That perspective is important for comprehending the idea of preparedness. Enabling people to invest time and energy in their preparedness ensures they have ownership of the measures and plans. Mature preparedness and mitigation efforts often happen via the interactions of institutions and citizens, and through their dynamics.
Sarah-Maude – Three Trends That Support Active Hope
Active Hope reflects what I observe in the profession because I think that in order to work in emergency management, we need to be motivated by the desire for continuous improvement. Sometimes it is possible to foresee what is coming, sometimes it is not; sometimes we can foresee but still be completely overtaken by a situation. Each emergency situation brings its issues, its challenges, its chaos and as professionals, we need to adjust, adapt, and learn from what is happening. To continue to evolve in this domain, it is therefore necessary that hope continues to sustain us and three trends within the profession support this hope.
An Accelerated Knowledge Transfer
First of all, and without neglecting their negative impact, the increasing number of emergency situations expose professionals to accelerated learning and knowledge transfer. When there is one emergency every 10 or 20 years, learnings can be lost when people who have experienced those events leave the profession. This increased pace allows learning to accumulate, enrich, and transfer from one situation to another. These teachings take place at the individual, institutional, organizational, private, and public levels.
Indeed, each situation allows us to identify the shortfalls on which we can subsequently work. We are hence able to increase the state of preparedness of our organizations, but also our individual preparedness for such situations. In this regard, it should be noted that as professionals, we get to know ourselves through emergency situations to which we must respond, increasing our knowledge and improving existing or developing new skills.
Closing The Loop of The Four Pillars of Emergency Management
Secondly, the urgency to act caused by climate change and the increase in the number of emergencies have engendered observations on our state of preparedness, and also on the importance of prevention and recovery. One of the things you learn quickly when studying emergency management is that it is a profession that has long been reactive rather than proactive; at this point, it finally seems to be closing the loop of the four pillars of emergency management, further solidifying a holistic approach which involves paying equal attention to prevention, preparedness, intervention, and recovery.
In Quebec, two major flood seasons in three years (2017 and 2019) have illustrated the urgency of focusing more 1) on prevention by reviewing our ways of approaching land use planning, 2) on preparation by raising awareness among the population exposed to the risk of flooding, and 3) on recovery to allow those affected to return to a new normal as soon as possible. The development of recovery has seen significant progress due to the need to support the population and the municipalities that are on the front lines in matters of emergency management. Initiatives have emerged. In this regard, the development of a recovery plan for use by municipalities and the project to compile good municipal recovery practices, two projects overseen by the Association de sécurité civile du Québec, should be noted.
Finally, I thought it was important to talk about another trend that extends beyond the emergency management profession, but affects our whole society. This trend is that of increasing openness to questions of work-life balance.
Being an emergency management professional means having a regular life, and a life in emergency situations, and being reachable almost at all times or carrying out on-call periods. Regular life is dedicated to increasing our state of preparedness, that of our organization, of partners or clients. Life in an emergency means being mobilized for several days or weeks in a row, and working long hours in a stressful, breathless, and trying environment.
Work-life balance brings with it several accommodations and a greater understanding on the part of those around us. This balance also directs us to respect our own limits. It is not always easy, but the current societal context which supports a better work-life balance is an asset. It helps us to be more open to discuss it and to find solutions to ensure the well-being of stakeholders. With your first emergency situation, you learn the hard way that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.
Paul-Émile – From Feedback to Knowledge
I believe Sarah-Maude’s inquiry highlights the need to go further than the response-centric model that was the norm, often producing a culture where respecting boundaries, both mental and with duty, was a struggle. Finding meaning and the idea of hope that Sarah-Maude describes builds on the cultural and social foundation of any community and recalls a basic truth in that we are all bound by one goal: serving people. In asking for input from Listuguj, I also wanted to show how finding meaning in Emergency Preparedness is important.
On this very principle I believe we can build inter-organizational cooperation initiatives: volunteer and citizen initiatives hand-in-hand horizontally with government-led structural mitigation initiatives.
By disrupting the feeling of living and working in a fractured world, emergencies bring us back to immediate and real concerns and to the foundations of what it means to be a community. Hope for the future lies in the capacity of emergencies to ground people in the real world around them and simultaneously care about larger issues.
Sarah-Maude – Following the Discussions
The colleagues with whom I spoke offered a vision of the profession identifying courses of action to improve emergency management in Quebec. These discussions, including the one between Paul-Émile and Colleen Labillois, allow me to see how the vision of our profession is tainted by the environment in which we operate: whether we are within a humanitarian organization, a municipality, or First Nations. In any case, there is hope in what they are saying.
Of all that Paul-Émile and I have collected, what stands out most is the importance of restoring skills and responsibilities to individual, local, municipal, and provincial levels. My colleagues, for their part, pointed out that in recent years, due to various disasters, we have started to talk more about emergency management, particularly the importance of resilience. Talking more about it had the counter-effect of delegating everything to the emergency management profession, particularly the plans and projects aiming at increasing resilience, whether of the population or of society in general.
The challenge is that emergency management cannot carry all of the responsibilities for risk reduction or resilience. These are responsibilities that are shared between different sectors such as economic development or regional and land-use planning.
We must therefore think about restoring skills and responsibilities, and ask ourselves if the role of emergency management would not be one of coordination. This is in line with what Colleen Labillois mentions when she stresses the importance of recognizing the diversity of knowledge and of using this diversity to strengthen communities. It takes a diversity of perspectives, all driven by the desire to be better prepared to deal with a disaster, to take the profession further.
Final Reflections – Keeping Hope Alive
Even if this text was written before the COVID-19 crisis, it seems more fair than ever, as our current crisis tells us that we all have a role to play. It seems clear to us that human adaptability is certainly greater than what we had thought collectively.
Despite this situation and what lies ahead, beyond climate change, the important thing is to maintain hope, Active Hope, and the motivation to continue to move forward together, as a collective, and to make our society more resilient.
Peek, Lori (2020). Active Hope: Shaping This Year’s Natural Hazards Workshop, Center News, Natural Hazards Center, Published on February 7 2020, Online: https://hazards.colorado.edu/news/center-news/695
World Economic Forum (2020), WEF Global Risk Report 2020, Online: http://reports.weforum.org/
Paul-Émile Auger, AMU – Serving First Nations since his early days at Indigenous Services Canada’s Emergency Management Assistance Program, Paul has been both boots on the ground and Command Staff during dozens of major emergencies across FN communities. He now upholds the same duty at Waban-Aki Grand Council, in Wôlinak, for a new capacity-reinforcing First Nations Emergency Management Program. With a background in political science and sociology at Université Laval, he combines an analytical approach with a thoroughly operational and decisive implementation. A proponent of the Incident Command System, his specialty is strategic planning and inter-agency coordination.
Sarah-Maude Guindon works in Emergency Management for the Canadian Red Cross – Québec. She holds a master’s degree in Disaster and Emergency Management from York University and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning from the University of Montréal. Prior to her current position, Sarah-Maude worked in the field of public safety and urban planning at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. She acts as the French content editor for HazNet.