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Are Canadian organizations ready for an emergency?

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com

(PART 1 OF 4)
Following is the first part of transcripts from the first COS Roundtable on Emergency Preparedness, held on August 12 at the Centre for Health and Safety Innovation in Mississauga, Ont. COS editor Mari-Len De Guzman moderated the discussion.

Panelists:
John Hollands, corporate account manager, Ontario Service Safety Alliance
John Parish, chief, provincial fire sector, Municipal Health and Safety Association
Andrew Harkness, senior strategy advisor, healthy workplaces, IAPA
Ralph Dunham, board member, Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness
Doug Morton, director, life sciences and business management, CSA Standards
Jason Lakhan, Gowlings
John Saunders, provincial director, disaster management and international response, Canadian Red Cross – Ontario

Moderator: What are research and studies telling us in terms of the state of readiness of Canadian organizations to deal with an emergency situation?

Ralph Dunham: There is no specific definitive data that we can rely upon, there has been lots of surveys, but I think the real challenge in trying to determine how many or how pervasive it is within organizations is that preparedness is a lot like being healthy; how do you determine if you are healthy or if you are prepared. It’s a continuum – you continue to get more healthy, or you can be unhealthy, but it’s not that you can say, ‘Now I am prepared.’ So I think a lot of organizations, when they are asked the question, have difficulty in interpreting to what extent do they need to be prepared before they can state that they are prepared.
 
Doug Morton: From our perspective at CSA, we launched our emergency management and business continuity standard last October and organizations like the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness, John (Saunders) as well were members of the committee that came up with that standard. And certainly in looking at marketing data, it’s quite clear from that data that in some cases it reports four out of 10 employees within organizations in Canada don’t know whether their companies have an emergency plan. And if they do have an emergency plan, don’t necessarily know what it is. So there does seem to be an issue. And certainly, in discussions that I have had across the country with a variety of organizations, they are at various stages of emergency preparedness. And so I think it is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.
 
John Saunders: With the development of the Z1600 Emergency Management Standard, I think that’s a good step. But there is even some confusion about what emergency management is. For many companies, it’s strictly, ‘Do I have a fire evacuation plan?’ It seems like fire and medical emergencies are covered off by larger companies. But looking beyond that, by way of doing overall risk assessments and recognizing that emergency management is so much larger than just fire and health. It’s really an entire, all-encompassing process that companies and businesses need to go through.
 
Moderator: Beyond the business continuity aspect of an emergency situation, is ensuring the health and safety of your workers. How involved are safety managers in the development of disaster preparedness strategies within an organization?
 
John Hollands: Traditionally, fire and emergency planning has fallen into the health and safety role, having your fire wardens trained, doing drills required by the fire code, first aid responders having those teams in place, having them trained – that’s traditionally been part of the health and safety manager’s role.
 
But integrating that into the business plans and into the organization plans as far as business continuity and high-level emergency planning, crisis management, that sort of thing, it’s fairly new. A lot of the larger organizations do it from a risk management point of view. They have more exposure than the smaller companies. And so I’ve seen, traditionally, they are the ones who seem to lead the field in those plans and developments, and having the crisis communication teams and that sort of thing in place. But the smaller businesses I think are just starting to realize that their business survival and continuity has some risks now, with many more emergencies that we’re looking at such as pandemic, etc.

Andrew Harkness:
I would suggest that our health and safety managers and practitioners, they have a balancing act. They are trying to ensure that the organization is in the prevention mode. Human nature is of the type that says, ‘I tend to respond more than I prepare.’ And we see that time and time again, whether it’s with pandemic – you had SARS – but to what level is the uptake to say how are we prepared for the next go around? We struggle with that.
 
So what I mean, from the health and safety practitioners’ point of view, is you have to elevate, in a way, a sense of urgency to the organization. But in a topic like this, you have to do it in such a way that doesn’t sound like you are in a fear mongering, “Peter-cry-wolf” mode. So I see that as a challenge to be able to say, you know we need to look at these issues. And unfortunately, in many of our organizations – to repeat the other point – is that our program for emergency preparedness is, ‘Yeah, we have a fire plan. And we’re really proud of ourselves if we could run a drill even twice a year.’
 
It’s unfortunately sometimes that level when we look at the standard for Z1600 here. It’s a managing of systems approach, and again, how does that come into the smaller firms to get a look at that and say, ‘How do I make it happen?’ But it is a challenge. How do we be proactive without sounding like we are always crying wolf?


Saunders: I think we need to recognize that, just as the emergency management profession is relatively new, it is evolving. Ten years ago, emergency managers were fire chiefs, we always thought of first responders, and health and safety officers within corporate entities. Their main priority was meeting code and making sure that they weren’t violating legislation, because that was obviously a business risk issue.
 
The whole concept of emergency management within an organization is also evolving. We now have masters program for emergency managers and that’s only two years in the making. So recognizing that organizations will take time to evolve along with the profession, and establishing the fact that not everything can happen at the same time. And this is where a lot of the discussions are, by way of doing that risk assessment and risk analysis, what really is the biggest risk that companies need to face, and basically start chopping them off, one at a time. Because otherwise, executives will be overwhelmed at the cost and it will be very difficult to get buy-in. But if you show the risk to the company, risk to the employees, that’s probably the best way that health and safety managers can approach this without fear mongering, becoming the Chicken Littles that we’ve all been called in our profession at some point. So that it can be a pragmatic approach without hurting the bottom line.
 
Jason Lakhan: Just to pick up on what John and Andrew were saying about the evolution of emergency management, I think an aspect of that evolution is driven by regulatory change. We have now seen the gathering momentum for workplace violence legislation most recently here in Ontario. And while most people wouldn’t traditionally associate emergency management with an acute workplace violence situation, we are being forced to change our thinking to encompass those types of acute situations, simply because of the regulatory change that will require addressing the hazards and coming up with appropriate policies and procedures – including communication, when to call police, when to call other external resources, having control of the situation and educating employees. So I think, as with all aspects of health and safety management, a lot of it is being driven by regulatory change.
 
John Parish: On the emergency side of things, which everybody has touched on just a little bit. I know there’s a real problem in dealing with things like pandemic. Emergency services are well set-up for immediate things that have happened. So if a building falls down, there’s a tornado, there’s a rainstorm, they call in the bell and everybody sort of comes back and you’re doing the same thing.
 
If you’re talking about resources – especially responding to all these areas in a pandemic-type situation – we all saw what happened with SARS where a lot of the emergency people were infected by their “clients.” So a lot of the people that business are counting on responding to assist them are going to be going through the same thing, maybe even worse because they are going to be more apt to be exposed to these hazards, especially the EMS and the fire side because they work together so closely in responding. They are going to be the ones that are going in, the ones that are going to be infected, and then they are going to be the ones that aren’t going to be available the longer the situation goes on.
 
So on the emergency services side probably, if it’s a long drawn out situation where people are sick for a long time, we’re going to lose our emergency workers. And so now, other people in associations, in businesses in that sort of area - Red Cross, St. Johns and people like that – are then going to be drawn in to fill in for some of those areas. And John would know better from the Red Cross side whether there’s enough people available to back fill for all of these people that are not going to be there anymore.
 
Emergency services are talking about this and trying to deal with it and there’s a lot of unanswered things that we’ve not had to deal with before.
 
Morton: If I could just add, it was interesting last night on both CNN and The National on CBC last night they were talking about the capability of health care facilities to handle a pandemic. And they featured, actually, Sunnybrook’s intensive care unit. And one of the things that they talked about was the fact that at any given day that intensive care unit is pretty much full in normal operations. And if a pandemic would have hit, the impact could be quite severe and to your point, John and also the other John’s point, you know when an emergency hits it hits you in the municipality; it hits you at home. And the assumption ofcourse from a health care perspective is that the hospitals will be functioning. Well if the employees are concerned about their families, they may not be there to function. If we have a capacity issue in terms of intensive care units or beds that’s going to be an issue.
 
And again, the issue around what is it that we’re actually planning for? There are all kinds that you need to plan for. The biggest concern over ICU departments, both on the CNN report and The National report, was something as simple as the availability of ventilators for people that are going to have the flu or H1N1 or whatever it happens to be – just a simple thing like ventilators. So there is a lot to consider in terms of emergency planning. It’s an A to Z issue.



Hollands:
We need to integrate all these various parts and pieces as part of an overall plan to know what our roles and responsibilities are. And because you’re focusing on the health and safety professionals and the support system that they rely on, I think one of the reasons why business continuity planning is becoming more and more popular is because it does spread and integrate across the organization; you start to build your teams, you start to develop your contingency plans by occupation or by unit within you organization. It almost touches everyone as far as cross-training and call lists and tracking. SARS was a good example of that for some organizations, I know, because they did have that in place. And they were able to communicate with and track everybody because of that business continuity plan and it was practiced, so they had a very good plan in place.
 
I think one of the learnings was that perhaps business continuity planning have traditionally been a financial risk assessment. It’s now being more and more integrated into emergency planning because of that, because of how integrated it is within the organization.
 
And I think also because senior management has exposure to that they can see how the risks compare to, say, the operational risks and the day-to-day health and safety of the organization. For us as managers, it helps us to place those risks in front of management on a regular basis if we follow a management system and set those targets.
 
Saunders: And that’s where getting into business continuity – the old term used to be business recovery or business resumption planning. Business continuity is keeping your operation running. When it comes to pandemic, for example, you may not be able to keep your entire business running. And one of the recommended first steps for most companies is to actually determine what are the essential services; payroll was mentioned, you have to keep paying people otherwise they are going to stop showing up.
 
There is essential work, but what isn’t essential? Red Cross, for example, we run first-aid training programs. During a pandemic, we might reduce service in that regard because how many people are going to want to be in a small room breathing in a mannequin during a pandemic situation. So then we can shift those resources into other essential elements such as our community home support programs, disaster management programs. Because disasters could still happen during a pandemic and that’s the other element, we have to make sure that our business continuity is still there so that we can respond to the house fires, to the tornadoes.
 
So that’s the value of the business continuity concept. Once you’ve determined what those essential services are, then you look at shifting resources. Who can work from home? The estimates right now is that over the course of a pandemic a third of your workforce will not be available. Again, I need to emphasize that is over the course of the pandemic, it won’t just be one week and all of a sudden a third of everybody is gone.
 
Harkness: If I could I’d like to come back to Jason’s point and we’re talking about: where does legislation fit into this kind of conversation? Just food for thought: Confined space entry as an example and the components within the legislation here in Ontario that require organizations to no longer rely on external services for part of the emergency planning piece. I think it’s a good wake up call for employers to take those steps necessary to say look, ‘We have to be accountable and responsible for managing the work processes that we create for ourselves.’ So I think there are advantages to seeing things come through from a legislative point of view.
 
But as long as we recognize that that is only raising the bar at quite a low level, but at least it is a step to encourage the kind of conversations that we want to have in the other matters. And as you say, ‘Even if I could get my organization to look at a business continuity perspective.’ From the fact that pandemic planning as it’s being seen in the media right now, maybe that is a good example for what a practitioner can hinge on and say, ‘Yeah you know it’s payroll that we need to get hung up on and make sure that we’re clear with.’ And then when we have time to sort of take a breather from this, that’s the opportunity to go back then and say, “Let’s pick a couple more out of this and help us build our program that way.’
 
Hollands: Just on that thread, the Campbell Report was, I thought, very influential because although not a regulation, it gave very clear recommendations for improvement in the health care sector and clearly spilling into all workplaces for their organization to take reasonable steps to protect employees in the case of a hazard, like infectious disease, that could affect the employees.
 
I believe health and safety folks have been front and centre in that for most organizations in looking at PPE, enhanced cleaning and all those aspects of facilities, looking at the numbers and trying to come up with recommendations for the organizations that they can implement. I believe the Ministry of Labour, WSIB are clearly in a position there to do some enforcement if required; we still don’t know what that would look like.

Related discussions:
Preparing for H1N1 resurgence
Social networking as part of emergency planning
Better coordination between public-private organizations

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