When a system is tested against extreme circumstances, such as the unprecedented wildfires currently raging in Fort McMurray, lessons can be learned to ensure organizations and the communities they operate within, are better equipped to prepare for, respond to and recover from — emergencies.

On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after exodus of the residents of Fort McMurray, the #ymmfire directly threatened the city’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), forcing its evacuation and relocation.  

The EOC acts as the hub for emergency management – a central command and control facility responsible for directing the strategic response and “big picture” of the disaster. The EOC is pivotal in collecting, validating and disseminating information and is the place where crucial decisions are made, to protect lives and property. Typically, a community or large organization would establish a primary EOC and equip it with the technology, tools and resources necessary for managing the emergency event and communicating internally and externally. This includes communications technology like multiple phone lines in and out of the facility, internet connection with multiple points of access, and supplemental communication methods such as radios or satellite telephones. Additionally, EOC facilities should be self-sufficient as the nature of their function is to support emergency situations with the risk of interruption to critical infrastructure such as electricity and/or water.

The evacuation of Fort McMurray’s EOC, while extremely unfortunate, is not an uncommon situation.  In fact, the Slave Lake wildfires which caused previously unprecedented destruction in May 2011 also forced the local authority to abandon it’s EOC, without having a backup plan in place to relocate the EOC when it burned down. In addition, no backup power or water supplies were available at the initial location.

While communities and organizations are building solid primary EOC’s — often, consideration for identifying and equipping alternate EOC locations is not taken.  This can result in the unnecessary addition of complexity and challenges during an incident. Secondary options must be a part of the plan.  These could be an alternate location in the community; regionally collaborating to establish a back-up centre or establishing formal expectations with neighbouring communities where the vital resources to manage an emergency can be shared.  Redundancy can’t be an option. 

Even with packing up and relocating to another EOC, the staff were able to continue their efforts in responding to this catastrophic event and keeping people safe.  88,000 evacuees with no serious injuries or fatalities is an incredible accomplishment. From all of us at CCEM Strategies, our thoughts go out to the firefighters, first responders and anyone else in the fire’s path.