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Ottawa’s Emergency Response: What Went Right

Sep 26, 2018
Rachael Bryson  Rachael Bryson
Senior Research Associate,
National Security and Public Safety

On Friday, September 21, 2018, the Ottawa region and western Quebec experienced a series of tornadoes that left a trail of destruction across many communities. Over 350,000 customers on the Hydro One network lost power, some for an extended period of time. Hardest hit was Dunrobin, where the tornado was classified as an EF-3, with winds of up to 265 kilometres per hour. These tornadoes, an infrequent phenomenon for Ottawa, are the latest in a string of extreme weather and natural disaster events in Canada. This summer saw a second consecutive record-breaking wildfire season in British Columbia and an active wildfire season in northern Ontario; New Brunswick was hit with historic flooding in May of this year; and most of the country sweltered in extreme summer heat.

While cities and provinces lead major coordination efforts in the face of natural disasters, these extreme weather events—deemed the “new normal” by climate experts—highlight how important it is for individuals to have emergency preparedness plans in place. At first glance, however, three things went really well during the tornado response:

Communications

On Friday afternoon, the new Alert Ready emergency notification system sent out a series of broadcast messages warning residents about the possibility of severe weather, including a potential tornado. Some people in the worst-affected areas credit the warnings with providing them enough time to take cover. The City of Ottawa, City of Gatineau, emergency responders, and electricity companies were highly visible on social media and actively communicated with citizens about the extent of the damage, areas to avoid, where affected residents could receive assistance, and plans for restoring power.

Response Time

The rapid response of emergency services—police, fire, and paramedic—was an essential part of the response to the tornadoes. They were on the scene where the tornadoes hit, responding to injury calls and setting up roadblocks around felled power lines. Also impressive was the speed of Hydro Ottawa’s response to the storm in repairing power lines and restoring power to customers: By 3:30 p.m. on Monday, only 259 of the 170,000 customers who lost power due to the storm remained without power. In western Quebec, demolition of damaged structures has already begun.

Governance

The leadership of the affected cities in responding to the emergency was clear. City of Ottawa initiatives like opening shelters, identifying facilities where residents without power could access services, providing instructions for clean-up efforts, and closing schools and asking non-essential workers to stay home on Monday so emergency crews could continue their work all occurred in a timely manner. Similarly, Ontario was quick to activate the Disaster Recovery Assistance fund for affected residents, and the Insurance Bureau of Canada sent representatives to affected communities to offer residents support and advice.

As the recovery efforts continue, more lessons from the tornadoes will be uncovered in the coming weeks and months, much as they have been from other disasters elsewhere in Canada. These insights will help the emergency management community better prepare for and respond to natural disasters, and will help Canadian emergency services and communities become more resilient.

UPDATE, September 27, 2018

The City of Ottawa has identified one of its biggest challenges from its response to the tornadoes: communications. In direct contrast to the above, the City suffered problems with the paramedics’ radio system, and its computer servers were under significant stress. Adding to this was the fact that many residents don’t have radios. So perhaps our lesson above should have emphasized the successful social media presence of all parties involved, which kept those residents who were able to get online well-informed.


Releated Webinar

ARTful Meta-Leadership: The Future of Emergency Management Leadership
The Conference Board of Canada, October 3, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. EDT


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