Barrie Tames the Monster
Emergency Preparedness in Barrie
© 2009 FrontLine Security (Vol 4, No 3)

Catastrophe struck on 31 May 1985, in the form of a devastating blast from Mother Nature. A tornado ravaged the busy community of Barrie – providing what current Mayor Dave Aspden describes as his city’s wakeup call. The CBC later tallied the devastation to this city of 128,000: Eight lives lost, 155 injuries, 300 homes destroyed, and more than $100 million in damages.

When storm clouds gather, Mayor Dave Aspden checks the weather forecast for Barrie – concerned about another tornado. Since the Great Barrie Tornado of ‘85, Aspden and other civic officials here have worked to ensure that the Barrie community has a capable response system against natural disasters.

To understand Barrie’s commitment to a resilient community, go back to that time, 24 years ago.

Immediately following the storm, a public safety revolution took place. As reporter Doug James of the CBC described it, “local residents are transformed from terrified victims to a unified army bent on rescue, restoring order and providing comfort.” (CBC, June 3, 1985)

Dave Aspden is a former police officer. In fact, in 1985, he headed up police operations for Barrie, so he had a hands-on view of the situation. “The police department took the lead from the Fire Department at the time of the tornado, and that command structure allowed us to work closely together to respond to the effects of the storm.”

This was the mindset that constable Dave Aspden took away with him as he moved from the beat to City Council. Now, today, after two and a half years as Mayor, Dave looks back on the situation they faced in Barrie in 1985 and he shakes his head. “If we had then what we have today in terms of a working emergency planning and preparedness system, who knows how much loss we could have avoided!”

Immediately after the storm, Aspden gained a voracious appetite for learning how to prepare for emergencies. He heard about the Canadian Emergency Management College in Ottawa, and enrolled. The future Mayor of Barrie completed all levels of specialized training for emergencies and demonstrated leadership qualities that had him being invited back as a guest lecturer.

What makes the Barrie model of Emergency Planning and Preparedness work today is the like-mindedness of the civic leadership. The Mayor, Fire Chief and the Community Emergency Planner all speak of the same conviction. And that is a need for community involvement – that safety is the purview of the whole community, not just the first responders.

When Mayor Aspden talks about the difference between then and now, you can tell he’s on top of the situation. “The basic problem back then was that the Emergency Plan for the municipality was in place, but it was useless because it was incomplete and out of date. So we fixed that!” he pauses, “but as simple as it may seem, the ‘fix’ was tough.”

As seems to plague many a valiant municipal effort at protecting the community, the Barrie City Council of the day did not have a great tornado in mind when key requirements for the City were being drafted! Nor was there a budget line item to cover the cost of a disaster mitigation plan – let alone funds to equip 1st Responders. It looked is if the real needs of the responders for training and equipment to safely and effectively protect the lives and property of its citizens was not – and could not – have been realized. But Mayor Aspden’s perseverance would pay off – because it was built from a “needs” perspective.

Emergency Operations Centre
Current capabilities revolve around two key components. First, Barrie’s civic fathers have a coordinated and committed attitude that is consistent with safety and security. Second, and equally important, they are acquiring the assets needed to optimally protect the community from a natural or criminal disaster. It is becoming evident – as Barrie has discovered – that an emergency operations centre is required for coordinated responses to emergencies.

Since taking over the Mayor’s Office in November of 2006, the reality of a Barrie Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) has been put in place. In June of 2009, the city was able to announce a funding package that is devoted to developing a new Fire Hall and EOC. The total cost of new ­facility is $14.2 million; the Federal Government and Ontario split on $8.5 million and Barrie covered the remaining $5 plus million. Along with the bricks and mortar portion that the government stimulus funding ­covered, Barrie itself saw the priority of the EOC as a municipal investment. Enshrined in Barrie’s by-laws now is the EOC wherein “the Emergency Control Group, Advisory and Support Teams and other support agencies will work together at the Emergency Operations Centre to make decisions, share information and provide support as required to mitigate the effects of the emergency.”

Emergency Planning
Committed civic leaders like Mayor Dave Aspden, Fire Chief John Lynn, and Community Emergency Planner, Bruce Griffin all speak the same emergency preparedness language. They understand the importance of documenting emergency planning and response procedures as well as the value of training and communications – these are modern city managers with the grit and practical experience of weathered cops and fire fighters.

All Barrie civic personnel learn that emergency preparedness is a shared responsibility. Also, they are prompted to communicate to residents and businesses that they too have an important role to play in making Barrie resilient to emergencies. The City of Barrie Emergency Management Plan outlines the City’s comprehensive emergency management arrangements, which underpin Barrie Council’s determination to ensure the resilience of the community and to protect the lives, well-being and property of the people of Barrie. According to the Mayor, “It is important that we do not view implementation of this Emergency Plan as the end of our preparedness but continue to review and refine it in an effort to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of our residents and visitors and keep the City of Barrie the best community in which to live, work and play.”

Flash flooding in downtown Barrie. (2005 Photos: Courtesy City of Barrie)

Curiously, the community leaders in Barrie all credit their colleagues – not themselves – for working together to make the community as resilient to disaster as possible. That’s the kind of teamwork across sectors, departments and public/private responsibilities that will sustain Barrie’s resiliency into the future. This is a model all Canadian communities need to adopt.

Barrie's Model Can Benefit Canada
Barrie’s developments to date in civic emergency preparedness are the result of local initiative and experience, and also of provincial mandate. Barrie has followed Ontario rules for establishing community emergency preparedness plans. Those provincial laws were initially developed by the Major Industrial Accidents Council of Canada (MIACC) which, at the time, was spearheading Canada’s role in establishing the Partnership Towards Safer Communities (PTSC). The PTSC was established in response to a known gap in the ability for communities across Canada to respond most effectively to a natural or industrial disaster in the community. When federal funding inaction led to MIACC being disbanded in 1999, the Intellectual Property of the PTSC was transferred to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC).

The Barrie by-laws that enshrine this model fully support the Ontario regulations which, in turn, come from the recommendations of the PTSC.

Barrie’s ability to develop what appears to be a robust and resilient community, with a well thought out and structured emergency preparedness system, is due to a number of factors. First, after the ‘85 tornado, Dave Aspden clearly understood the need for a community-wide response capability. Second, the Ontario Government seems to have adopted many of the recommendations of the Partnership Toward Safer Communities program regarding how to set up a municipal emergency plan (complete with integrated services from all sectors) – and made this mandatory for all Ontario communities. Third, the Federal Government has contributed with co-funding for the Barrie Emergency Ops Centre and has a well established program at the Emergency Management College that brings relevant training to first responders.

When issues are as critical as community safety and resiliency against disasters, it is important to keep the IP in the hands of organizations that understand the risk. Obviously, the federal decision-making that disbanded the PTSC is not an acceptable mindset for entrusting our very safety and security! What is chronically uncomfortable is wondering if similar short-sighted decisions are being made today. The problem is that funding decisions are being made by bureaucrats rather than people who really understand community safety.

Federal Action
The need for a Public Safety ­Policy must be recognized (and let’s get it right by tailoring it to the requirements of the first responder community). Another priority is a tax policy that will propel all parties to get serious about helping communities prepare for and mitigate future disasters.

It is time to resurrect the PTSC – in the hands of people who know what they are doing. Thankfully, the Association of Fire Chiefs has the foundational documentation and a catalytic interest in making sure it can rebound and flourishes.

The federal government can make a significant impact by supporting the Fire Chiefs in supporting this new, revitalized PTSC. Taking a page from Barrie’s emergency preparedness model and ensuring it gets replicated across the country would be an effective step in strengthening Canada’s overall emergency ­preparedness.

One can’t help but wonder why the Public Safety department doesn’t do something easy, clever, strategic, or even basic to help communities get to the state of preparedness that exists in Barrie. There are now enough precedents for the Feds to do something innovative, effective, and efficient to advance community resiliency to disasters. On the training side, it may be that the Public Safety College is a good basic introduction to the role that the Federal Government can play in providing citizens with resilient communities – so expand that program both in terms of reach and content!

Because we are talking about community resiliency, why not consider more stimulus money for community safety and security projects. It seems that a community EOC, for example, is as much of a contributor to infrastructure resiliency as any structural developments.

Experience confirms that throwing money at a problem seldom produces the desired result. Instead, let’s reconsider what was working and get back to it! The greatest opportunity for contribution to the other communities in Canada can come from the Federal Government. So, what can be done? First, it needs to support initiatives that are working. It’s too late to resuscitate the MIACC, but Public Safety can find a way of extending programs like the PTSC across the country. Generated from a model of collaboration and teamwork, it spreads the costs to all the stakeholders, so even if the Federal Government is called on to pick up most of the hard costs, many of the soft costs are borne by the participants. Sounds like a no-brainer!

Edward R. Myers is an Associate Editor of FrontLine-Security magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2009