By Paul Hassanally
For most of the month of June, 2016 I had the opportunity to deploy to Fort McMurray with an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) called Team Rubicon to help the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) facilitate the re-entry of evacuated residents. Team Rubicon unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams. The global disaster relief organization offers veterans, first responders as well as emergency management professionals and eager civilians the opportunity to serve communities affected by disasters. Founded in 2010 by two American veterans, Team Rubicon currently counts 35,000 volunteers across country affiliates in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and now Canada.
The Fort McMurray deployment was Team Rubicon’s first mission in Canada and marked the operational launch of its national affiliate: Team Rubicon Canada. With a more formal launch slated for later this year, for the last seven months, a team of Canadian veterans have worked alongside emergency management professionals such as myself to bring Team Rubicon’s model of disaster relief to Canada.
On May 25, 2016, a seven-person team of American and Canadian Team Rubicon volunteers arrived in Fort McMurray to set to work with the RMWB. With myself as the Incident Commander and the support of Team Rubicon Global, USA, UK, Australia and a partner NGO, IsraAID, Team Rubicon Canada’s operation in Fort McMurray would scale in a matter of three days from 25 to over 380 personnel, including local government employees, private contractors, volunteers and other partner volunteer groups. This rapid scaling was all made possible by the disciplined use and application of ICS by Team Rubicon.
The first task that the RMWB gave to Team Rubicon was to support the reopening of the local food bank by decontaminating non-perishable goods and disposing of any unusable food stock. Completed in three days, the volunteers then began to work on disposing of fridges that had become biohazardous after a month of being left with food products in them since before the evacuation.
While fridge removal was underway, the Team Rubicon command team was busy planning the next large task, which was to design and implement a program with the RMWB to provide a service to sift through the ashes of burned homes to retrieve special heirlooms or personal items for residents. This was an especially complex task since the ashes of the homes were considered to be hazardous material under a protective coating that had been applied to the burned areas to keep the ash contained. These conditions would require all volunteers and workers in these areas to wear Level C hazardous materials personal protective equipment, which included Tyvek suits, rubber boots, gloves, half-face respirator, goggles and hard hats.
The coordination and planning tasks involved in implementing this program meant that Team Rubicon had to manage an inbound-outbound call service to residents scheduling service time windows, plan specific daily work plans for each of the site sifting teams, and track completions for reporting to the Regional Emergency Operations Centre (REOC) and ultimately, the Province of Alberta. All of this was done using ICS, with close coordination between Team Rubicon and the REOC’s planning and operations sections. The REOC and Team Rubicon anticipated that there would be popular demand for this program, so Team Rubicon Operations Section volunteers were used as strike team leaders for site sifting strike teams, augmenting each team with locally contracted labour to field a total of 44 strike teams with 6 personnel each. At peak output, this operations section was completing in excess of 90 property sifting work orders (averaging 3-4 hours each) per day. To achieve this level of impact, a three-day scale-up was conducted where incoming personnel were fit-tested for their masks, trained, and embedded onto a team for learning the sifting process, under close supervision of the Team Rubicon Safety Officer.
Towards the end of the Team Rubicon operation in Fort McMurray, the effort had scaled back down to 22 strike teams and the few remaining work orders were handed over to the RMWB, who inherited the ICS structure that Team Rubicon had put in place for this operation. The effective transition was achieved through a two-day “relief-in-place” procedure, where incoming personnel were embedded to shadow Team Rubicon on the first day, while on the second day Team Rubicon mentored the incoming personnel to provide advice as they completed their tasks within the established ICS structure. Furthermore, members of Team Rubicon’s planning and operations team kept thorough documentation, with daily Incident Action Plans (including mapping, media, and work completion reports), and provided all of these reports to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo upon Team Rubicon’s demobilization.
Throughout Team Rubicon’s deployment to Fort McMurray, the disciplined use of ICS enabled an agile and scalable response in building, equipping, training, and managing an organisation of about 350 international volunteers, government and contracted responders in three days.
For more information on Ontario’s IMS (compatible with ICS), visit www.ontario.ca/ims for free resources and courseware.