By Alain Normand

When I worked for the Public Safety Services in Gatineau, I remember an event where Fire Services was called to a home for an active fire. When they arrived on scene, they found out this was the home of one of the firefighters. The family was safe, but the home was compromised. In the debriefing after the response was over, it became evident that this had been a very different incident response than any usual fire call. The firefighters had taken risks they would not normally take because this home belonged to one of their own. They went beyond the call of duty to try and save that home. They worked faster to contain the fire and took shortcuts putting their own safety at risk. They tried to minimize the water damage by installing pumps while the fire was still active. They reached for a few items in the home that they felt could have special meaning to the family and moved them outside to protect them. While the team was reprimanded to a certain extent for not following protocols, it became evident that their actions were different when dealing with the home of one of their colleagues.

Emergency management has been concentrating in responding to emergencies that affect our citizens with little to no regards to situations affecting our own operations. What if an emergency now affects one of our key facility? Do we respond in the same way? Should we respond with the same protocols?

The quick answer may be that this is the responsibility of the business continuity unit. Experience has shown us however that the continuity of operations units in governments – if there is one at all – focus on developing contingency plans or recovery plans. The response aspect is rarely included in the mix. The idea is to relocate people, to transfer operations somewhere else, to maintain IT functions, to continue serving our customers. Rarely are the plans inclusive of the response function. Who works with the first responders in the initial phases to ensure that staff are all accounted for? Who communicates to staff on the situation and lets them know the details of the incident? Even more important, how do we ensure that we have enough resources to take care of the emergency that affects both our citizens and our own operations?

A major power outage, a tornado strike, a pandemic, or a flood, may have impacts both internally and externally. As these emergencies grow in magnitude and impact, it becomes evident that these situations of dual impact will become more common.

I am a believer in the IMS system. At the same time, I find that the IMS system doesn’t go far enough. There is too much of ICS in the system which concentrates on doing tasks to protect the life and health of people affected, then the property and the environment. It does this with no differentiation whether the impact is on residents or on government property. Business continuity people will likely tell you that the faster you start on contingency implementation or recovery operations, the better your chances of minimizing downtime and reducing financial impacts. Yet, first responders will roll out the yellow tape by the kilometre if they feel it is the right thing to do.

This is why we have modified our IMS org chart. Beyond the traditional command, operations, planning, logistics, and finance/administration teams, we grafted an incident management team. This team is the same that responds to internal incidents that do not involve emergency responders. When we have a cyber attack, a pipe burst, or a labour disruption, the team comes together to start implementing contingency and recovery plans. That same team is now called into the EOC during other emergencies to assess and take action in coordination with the rest of the EOC teams.

This team, composed of specialists from IT, HR, Facilities, Security, Communications, and Business Continuity, plays a number of roles in the EOC. First, they raise awareness to the first responders of their own need. They can coordinate access to sensitive equipment, they can obtain access to facilities to shut off building systems or equipment, and they can direct first responders for increased efficiency and speed in their containment of the situation. They have first hand information on the situation, the actions being taken, and they can evaluate the impact on operations right there from the EOC. They can communicate with staff and provide authoritative instructions on what employees should be doing about the situation. They can coordinate the timing of their recovery with that of the EOC-led response. They can make sure that resources are allocated to their plans and not all go to the external response.

While most private organization that have a business continuity plan will coordinate their response all from the internal point of view, municipal governments are different. We have to coordinate both the internal and the external at the same time. The IMS system is lacking in that it has an external focus only. We have modified it so it now has both. I believe other municipal governments should consider combining resources from the emergency management side and the business continuity side to this revised IMS organizational chart.

Like they tell you on the planes, put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. In our training, we tell staff that they should have a personal preparedness plan. If they are called to take action during an emergency, we don’t want them to be worried about their families. Take care of your own first, then come and help us take care of the situation, is what we teach.

As a municipal government, if our operations are compromised, we want to make sure we have the ability to maintain our critical services first, then work towards resolving the situation. Having an Incident Management Team in the EOC allows us to do this.

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