Halton Region's Operation Flu-Phix
Sep 15, 2006

Halton Region takes a “no stone left unturned approach” to planning for emergencies. With a population expected to exceed 439,000 by 2007, Halton is a socially and economically dynamic community located in south western Ontario. Its landscape is an integration of rural and urban interests, ­supported by agriculture and industry. From an emergency preparedness ­perspective, there are many challenges – severe weather, spills, and transportation accidents to name a few. The challenge of a lifetime, however, will be a pandemic influenza.

Halton's table-top emergency exercise included Halton's Chief Administrative Officer, Brent Marshall (left), and Commissioner and Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Nosal.

Halton Region’s pandemic influenza planning activities have been substantive over the past four years, since long before the issue hit mainstream media. These efforts have been anything but insular as the responsibility to ensure the health, social and economic welfare of the community must be shared. For any emergency program to be effective, consultation with response stakeholders is critical.   

Late last year, officials in Halton conducted an assessment of the community’s planning efforts through a comprehensive, full-scale tabletop emergency exercise. Operation “Flu-Phix”, the first exercise of its kind in Canada, engaged more than 225 participants in an assessment of response capabilities to address the ­warning, impact and recovery phases of a pandemic influenza emergency.  

“True resilience – our ability to cope – starts with building strong connections between those who will ultimately be responsible for managing any disaster that may occur,” says Halton’s Chief Administrative Officer Brent Marshall. “Our long-standing relationships are what will see us through, whether it’s pandemic influenza or any other type of disaster in our community. Exercises, like Operation Flu-Phix, validate the time and effort spent identifying our vulnerabilities, building upon existing experiences and resources, and establishing a collective strategy for responding to disasters.”

The exercise was not positioned as a static event that would provide a formula or simple solution to a pandemic influenza emergency. Rather, it was a forum to identify any gaps in Halton’s pandemic influenza management capabilities. Clearly defined objectives were communicated in advance to the exercise participants:

  • Stakeholder Relations: To examine the interface between Local Municipal, Regional, Provincial, volunteer and private sector organizations in the conduct of crisis and consequence management activities.  
  • Public Information and Media Relations: To discuss processes to provide timely, relevant and coordinated information and instructions to the community.  
  • Medical Monitoring / Surveillance: To review the capabilities of local medical infrastructure (hospitals, physicians, paramedics, public health) to recognize, identify, monitor and respond to pandemic influenza.
  • Training and Education: To allow the participants to gain a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities and the relationships between various stakeholder emergency response plans.  

The scope and size of Flu-Phix presented several challenges. Inclusive stakeholder engagement was critical to ensure the exercise was practical and meaningful. To achieve this, 35 public, private and volunteer sector organizations were represented, and participants were grouped in sector ­specific areas according to their jurisdictions of responsibility.

The exercise scenario was presented in three modules, each increasing in intensity. As the exercise began, each sector reviewed the first module that presented a scenario outlining the warning phase of a pandemic. The participants worked through a series of questions meant to highlight response and management priorities and identify issues that required resolution. At the end of the discussion each sector took three minutes to report the results of their discussions to the other participants. Those involved gained an understanding of each other’s priorities and issues as they listened to the sector specific reports. The process was repeated for the second and third exercise modules that presented the impact and recovery phases of a pandemic respectively. Throughout the exercise, participants were encouraged to approach other sectors to gather any necessary information to resolve immediate concerns.

Local media interest in Operation Flu-Phix was significant and CPAC, Canada’s Parliamentary Channel, filmed part of the day for a documentary being produced regarding pandemic influenza. CPAC was particularly interested in the extensive stakeholder consultation involved in developing Halton’s response strategy over the past several years.  

The Flu-Phix exercise allowed participating organizations to assess their own pandemic preparedness, while interacting with other community stakeholders. Feedback from the participants indicated they felt the exercise was very valuable and achieved its stated objectives:

  • 80% responded that the exercise identified key gaps in responsibilities for management of a pandemic emergency;
  • 84% responded that the exercise clarified roles and responsibilities; and
  • 82% responded that the exercise increased knowledge about sharing resources and assets.

A number of key recommendations were developed as a result of the exercise that will assist Halton and its partners as they move forward with sustaining and ­augmenting their pandemic influenza ­preparedness.

Among these recommendations is the need to establish processes that will ensure ready access to the materials required to provide essential services to the Region. Other recommendations speak to the importance of coordinated communications among stakeholders.

The exercise validated the need for the ongoing support of senior decision-makers and business leaders to sustain the pandemic influenza planning and preparedness process, coordinate efforts and share information with community partner organizations, and continue to pursue workable solutions to issues that may impact the collective response.

Regardless of the scale, scope or subject, the Halton experience demonstrates that four specific elements must be in place for a successful emergency planning exercise:

  • Identifying in advance those who may benefit from participating in such an exercise;
  • Accounting for the varying degrees of exercise exposure and experience of the participants;
  • Having the full commitment of key stakeholders and senior-level decision makers to actively participate in an open, meaningful and candid fashion; and
  • Developing a comprehensive communications strategy to fully inform, engage, update, and follow-up with stakeholders and the community at large.

“Mock emergency exercises enable us to test the emergency plans, policies and procedures for responding to emergency situations and Halton’s experience in conducting exercises is extensive,” says Brent Marshall. “Operation Flu-Phix took six months to plan, but it confirmed that a table top exercise like this is a very worthwhile endeavour.

“A great deal can be achieved with ­little more cost than the time and energy of dedicated people who recognize the value of established relationships in responding to disasters.”

Kathryn Karcz, M.P.A., is Halton Region’s Senior Emergency Management Advisor.
© FrontLine Security 2006