Back in my high school days, when playing sports, I was always the last to be picked by the team captains. They made fun of me because I was the smallest guy in the class. They nicknamed me Bigal to rub it in. Sometime they even argued not to have me on their team. “You take him…No you take him.”
Maybe I should be thankful for this as I learned quickly to find excuses to skip Phys Ed and go to the library to read books on my favorite subjects. It helped boost my IQ a bit and I learned a lot about many topics. I later concentrated on physical activities that didn’t involve teams, like racquetball. I overcame most of the rejection later in life when I started playing with friends and I accepted that I wasn’t going to be a star player. I played hockey, volleyball, and baseball just for fun with nobody expecting me to hit homeruns, so I had fun. I changed my approach to sports and it worked for me.
I think emergency management is like that kid; always last to be picked. Governments pick the big guys like health and education first. They get the bigger piece of the pie when it comes to budgets and resources. At the local level it’s usually roads and transit that come first. When concerns for safety and security come up, it’s all about police and fire, sometimes paramedics.
It’s like the line I used to dread so much. The two team captains would have us lined up and as kids got picked they would go stand beside the captain until there was no more line but only a single unwanted player left; me. In government, once all the divisions have been picked and allotted resources, emergency management stands alone at the wall; waiting.
Since emergency management in Ontario is mandatory, in many cases particularly in small communities, council turns to the fire chief. “You take it.” The fire chief doesn’t want it but ends up being forced to take emergency management within his/her portfolio. Usually, no additional budget is allotted for it.
In larger municipalities where there is a person, or even if you are lucky, there is a group of people doing emergency management, budgets and resources are still very limited and often the first to get cuts when there is a need to “improve efficiency”.
So what can we do about it?
We could give up, like I did in high school, and find something else to do. We could yell and scream to get more attention. We have done a bit of that at times but those have had limited results. We could wish for more disasters that would give us the opportunities to show what we are capable of; but although the rush of adrenaline that goes with responding to emergencies is exciting, I don’t relish the thought of people suffering, so that is not my wish.
We could actually accept the reality. That is our fate. Emergency management will never beat health and education. We will never get the attention that police and fire get. We will never have the types of budgets that roads and transit get.
Once we have made peace with this, we can look for creative approaches. Racquetball was a lot more fun to me than dodgeball because I played with a friend and nobody had to pick me. I didn’t care if I lost most of my games because my friend still wanted to play with me; especially if he knew his chances of winning were high.
That’s what happened when I created the Lighthouse program in Brampton. I have the responsibility for the safety of over 600,000 citizens in terms of large-scale emergencies. I have a small –although extremely competent– team to help me fulfill my mandate. I have very limited budgets that have actually shrunk by 20% since I started in 1999. So how can I do my job? I turn to existing resources in the community that I can tap into without requiring additional budgets.
The Lighthouse program aims at bringing the faith-based organizations (FBOs) as participants to the emergency management and disaster relief mission of the city. The 2011 census demonstrated that almost 90% of the citizens identified themselves as affiliated to a faith-based organization. They may not go to church every Sunday or attend the local temple weekly, but they know where it is, they have a connection to it and if they are made aware that the local place of worship will be a refuge for them in case of disaster, they will definitely go there.
When we approached the faith based community on this concept, the response was overwhelmingly favorable. Almost every FBO said that this fits directly with their own mission of being there to help people in difficult situations. Most of them admitted that people are more likely to turn to religion when faced with a challenge than when the sun is shining on them. So never better to be there for the community than when a disaster strikes.
We currently have eight FBOs ready to sign on with the City as soon as our legal document is finalized and another 12 that have given preliminary demonstration of interest. We have started working on a train the trainer program so we can select a few people from each of these FBOs to be the main contacts and the ones to train the volunteers who will participate in the program. We created a logo and have a preliminary marketing plan that relies mostly on church bulletins and web sites, as well as word of mouth amongst the congregations.
I’ve now increased my team at least 100fold by accessing volunteers and organizations that will share my mandate to protect our citizens in times of disaster. I will never get that level of staff from municipal budgets.
I accepted that we will be the last picked every time. It doesn’t mean that I gave up. I am no longer hiding in the library. I’m out there playing the game. I just found new people to play with.