Sep 17, 2009

Better coordination between public-private organizations

By Mari-Len De Guzman
(PART 4 OF 4)
Following is part of the 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.

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: If an emergency or disaster strikes today, what scenario are we looking at in terms of our preparedness???Parish: If it’s an immediate disaster - and I’m looking at emergency service responders and things like that, which I normally look at - if it’s a tornado or something like that that happens suddenly, we’re probably fairly well-equipped to deal with that, or chemical spills and things like that.

A long-term situation such as a pandemic, I think there’ll be a fairly good response, but then the response people and so on is going to start to fizzle off. And so I don’t think even in Ontario in the emergency service side that we’re fully equipped to handle something such as a pandemic where everybody is sick. If a building falls down on somebody, we have a ... team that responds with millions of dollars worth of equipment and are well-trained. The training is something that we have been talking about, it's still probably weak, I would say.

Dunham: It’s an interesting question, because from my perspective, are we talking about the citizens, or are we talking about industry or are we talking about our governments?

If it’s a sudden disaster, for the most part I think as citizens, I’m fairly comfortable with the ability to support our citizens across the country. I also believe that governments will have a capability to continue to operate.

I am not so confident that businesses are even factored into a lot of these plans. And their assumptions about the support they’re going to be receiving and the actuality of the support that they are going to be receiving from government is misleading. And that they will have a lot of difficulty and I suspect a lot of them are either looking at being self-sufficient or not counting on it or don’t appreciate or understand.

So it’s this dichotomy of the citizens and the government supporting the citizens is one thing. The business community seems to be not as integrated into that, and planning it. That’s what I would like to see.

Morton: I think the key issue for me, especially given this conversation as well this morning, whether we talk about municipalities that aren’t necessarily prepared for everything they’re gonna need to deal with, whether we talk about communication plans and how well we are communicating with our employees and with the communities at large if a disaster were to strike, and the overall issue of communication between the governments, the federal government, provincial governments, municipalities. The biggest concern I have about our preparedness – and John mentioned that some of the large organizations are doing a pretty good job in being ready and the concern is in small and medium sized businesses – but even within that continuum the biggest issue for me is how effectively will we approach a major issue in an integrated fashion? That’s my biggest concern, and I think the biggest area of need at this point in time that will really help us prepare for whatever major disaster is on its way. 

Harkness: I agree. I think when we talk about the community, citizen perspective – government perspective – the weak link in this chain is the business community. How can we encourage organizations to be more preventive. I mean, our world is prevention. If we look at the uptake on products and services from the prevention side of our business, it generally is not as popular or available from the perspective of others that might be more legislatively driven and such. So you have some of that kind of concern that goes with this.

Naturally organizations, I think they are making assumptions. I come back to John’s point that even the organization that is stockpiling and building its own resources and believes that it’s self-sufficient is not prepared to have that material equipment confiscated because it’s going to be in the greater good of the community that it’s going to be driven from.

So you have some of those aspects of saying we truly haven’t created an integrated approach to look at how does the business community and my organization, how does it fit in to what the overall plans would be. That’s the kind of thing I think we would be trying to encourage further dialogue in, is to look at those kinds of viewpoints.

Lakhan: I would say that in order to address a lot of the concerns that we’re hearing – Doug talking about integration, issues of equipment, supply during acute times of need – the bottom line is that employers need to sit down with their emergency response plan in the very near future and candidly look at that and its effectiveness. And in order to do that you need to look at best practices. It’s one thing to comply with your applicable legislation and it’s quite another thing to reach for the best practices. They are out there, whether it’s in the form of a statute or a regulation in another province or a private organization – Canadian Standards Association, Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness – all of these avenues have the resources you need to address any shortfalls in your current emergency response plan. And I would encourage everybody, looking or reading about what we had to say today, to go back, look at your emergency response plan critically and make sure that it addresses all of the areas that a comprehensive plan needs to do.

Saunders: We have not had our own Katrina in Canada in a long, long time. Hurricane Hazel was probably the last major significant incident that I would say would be the Katrina size. At the Red Cross, our mission statement is we mobilize the power of humanity and basically focus that humanity to where it’s needed most.

From a humanity perspective, human kind has an inate ability to respond and rebound from emergencies and also to step up. We see the good that comes out of humanity that steps up to make sure that everybody is taken care of. We rely on that. That’s how we exist. That’s in our organization around the world.

From a humanitarian perspective, and I’m tying this in with organizations, it is beyond just keeping your business running. In many cases, the business is essential in order for the survival of the community.

So if you are a transportation company, we need transportation to keep going during a large-scale emergency. Sometimes we have to completely rebuild an infrastructure during a Katrina-size incident. We rely on private industry to assist in rebuilding that infrastructure.

For something the size of H1N1 or a Katrina whatever size that might be or nature, going beyond that, 'this is a competitive edge and a way for me to get my competitors out of the business because if they fail I can take over the market share.'

During a disaster, market share has to go out the window. It’s about making sure that the services are provided and that the people get what they need. And that is where the corporate community responsibility comes in and that humanitarian approach.

Can we plan with our competitors to support each other, to make sure both operations continue? So, if you lose a lot of your workforce and a competitor hasn’t lost as many yet, is there a way of sharing resources to make sure that those essential services continue to operate?

If you lose your building can you share with a competitor?

We’re not really competitors in the greater scheme of things but Salvation Army and St. John Ambulance we compete for donor dollars. There’s only so many dollars that Canadians are willing to give to charity.

But yet when it comes to disasters and response, we work together. Salvation Army lost one of their main warehouses as a result of a fire. Red Cross says, 'well why don’t you use our offices to continue operating?' They may not want to take advantage of that but that’s the type of collaboration that has to happen even amongst perceived competitors.

So talking with your trade associations and seeing how you perhaps collaborate during times of emergency to ensure that people get what they need, so that the industry survives. Everything can be carved out afterwards, but I can dare you the public gratitude for those industries that take that approach will give them their market edge, post-disaster, because of the goodwill that’s generated. So there is that marketing aspect. But it really is getting beyond just a cutthroat business world. When you’re talking about emergencies it’s bigger. It is a humanitarian disaster because people are impacted and how do we work together for the betterment of the community, not necessarily the betterment of my particular company.

Hollands: Canadians have always lived in a pretty tough environment as far as the climate and some challenges that we face. It’s definitely going to be a community partnership in survival and resilience. I think we do have a strong history of that. What we don’t have a strong history in is planning, working together at all levels. I think that conversation, this being a good example, a forum bringing different sectors together to discuss and agree on next steps and strengths and gaps.

I think, again, the businesses will find a way through this. They’re very innovative typically, especially the small businesses. However, the trade associations are taking a much stronger role in facilitating the discussion and bringing speakers and forums together around that. And in any community, it’s the common touch points that bring people together and help the understanding.

The Safe Work Associations are set up to be very sector-specific so some of the hazards and risks that some of the organizations face are, I think, quite well-addressed through our websites and our services. And we have started developing some tools and processes to help businesses in that regard.

The reality of the data I think is very clearly responsibility of organizations and government to make sure that clear messages get out and the clear data gets out. Recently there was talk of one of the antivirals not being effective with children. And the review of that was that these studies were based on a demographic review of old data. We’re really trying to find our way through what really is important for us. But working together within this community, I think Canadians have pretty good communities especially with municipals and public service, we’ll probably do quite well.

Related discussions:
Are Canadian organizations ready for an emergency?
Preparing for H1N1 resurgence

Social networking as part of emergency planning