Exercises in Small Communities

By: John Newton, P.Eng. Ph.D

Old pro or newbie, you know the need and value of exercises. Yet generating the enthusiasm and support across the desired breadth of organizations and agencies can seem a daunting challenge, especially when added to your daily workload and the unplanned events and emergencies that occur. Some, especially where annual exercises are required by legislation, attempt to substitute these emergencies. A natural tendency when one’s schedule is crowded I will admit, though not the same as a controlled exercise where mistakes are learning opportunities, not casualties. If we then consider a small community where emergency staff has many (too many?) hats, organizing, planning and holding an exercise can seem out of reach.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I recently moved to Salt Spring Island just off the east coast of Vancouver Island in the newly named Salish Sea. Over the last few years emergency efforts have begun to focus on community preparedness through a Pod Program. Pods are distinct geographic areas of the island (there are currently 50) where volunteer residents organize and develop emergency preparedness and response capacity. As the normal 72 hour rule could well be much longer for a major event on Salt Spring, particularly for the more remote Pods and those that depend on single road and power access, emergency services are promoting that residents work towards being self-sufficient for up to seven days. Once the foundation planning is done Pods are encouraged to hold tabletop training and information sessions. On November 21, 2009 fifty community members and emergency response staff (Ambulance, Communications, Fire, RCMP, SAR) assembled at Fire Hall #1 for an overview of current emergency preparedness activities. Emergency leaders of the Long Harbour Pod – all volunteers – then went though a simulated snowstorm and power outage, including coping with a severely injured resident.

Picture1In addition to a large map of the Pod area, the exercise used a basic process of about five verbal or written inputs outlining the evolving situation, which were developed by the Fire Services’ training coordinator. With snow making steep roads treacherous and downing power lines the Long Harbour team reviewed their resources (local skills and equipment) to address the situation they faced. Forty observers from other Pods and the community emergency services contributed ideas and thoughts as the tabletop was run in a very open manner. This approach helped the event be a learning experience for everyone attending, rather than just the players. Other Long Harbour residents, asked hard questions and provided personal detailed information about trails, roads and people with needed skills. Emergency responders saw the capacity to cope and caring in the residents, as well as their weaknesses and lack of knowledge. As is all too often the case, the process of communications to other residents and the emergency agencies was uncertain and irregular.

Picture1With darkness descending rapidly the formal exercise came to a close with the players breathing a sigh of relief, but also shuddering a little and knowing in their hearts the severity of the situation were it real. There followed a lively debrief and a long list of potential actions (see sidebar) that chart a good direction, though require much effort, so will likely take some time to achieve. Nonetheless, over three hours a great deal of valuable experience was gained, the overall Pod Program on Salt Spring strengthened, gaps identified, and a valuable feeling of progress and readiness realized among the volunteers. It was one important step in the many that are needed for our island residents to be ready for local or wider emergencies. It only takes the efforts of a few to make a real difference and the people in Fire Hall #1 that day are now better prepared to cope. Your community can achieve the same.

John Newton lives on Salt Spring Island, consults in business continuity and emergency management and is a member of the Island’s Emergency Management Commission. Contact: 250.653.4594 or j.newton@utoronto.ca

Exercise Outcomes:

·  More exercises would be desirable

·  Pod leaders need to identify alternates as preparedness is a neighbourhood effort

·  Important to encourage residents to work on personal emergency kits

·  Pod newsletters (even one page) help promote preparedness and inform residents

·  Promotion in the local newspaper with cut-out ad to increase public awareness

·  The better prepared people are at home, the better they can help their neighbours

·  Better communications between Pods and Community Coordination Centre (CCC) means better resource allocation

·  More training and more exercise sessions including radio and first aid needed soon

·  Ensure a back-up of Pod resource lists are at the CCC should a Pod not have access to their list

·  Combine a Pod exercise with a social event

·  Consider realigning the boundaries of some Pods

·  Utilize Neighbourhood Watch Information

·  Sub-divide Pods by Post Box zones