'You don't want to be 'e;xchanging; business cards when the emergency hits.'
Councillors play games to prepare for disaster
It was the kind of nightmare scenario that Iqaluit's mayor, council and staff have always dreaded.
It started when the 100-year blizzard – the storm of the century – finally decided to show up.
With 100-km-an-hour winds driving an unrelenting snowfall, pretty soon the airport was shut down.
Then, of course, somebody going through their own private emergency decided to go out in the storm for a drive. They skidded off the road in the whiteout and knocked out an electrical transformer.
Things went rapidly downhill.
Apex was left without power or water.
And with the airport closed, pretty soon food and medical supplies had begun to run low.
But none of this really happened, thank goodness. It wasn't a real emergency.
It was simply what's called a "table-top exercise," a kind of dry-run, concocted by Mike Hand of Emergency Preparedness Consultants to test the city's emergency response plan at the end of a week of training just before Christmas last year.
"They just kept adding incident after incident," Iqaluit's chief administration officer John Hussey said, an edge of excitement still evident in his voice from the adrenalin rush of trying to juggle the city's response.
Hussey, Mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik, and the rest of the group, which included other city staff and council, and members of agencies like the RCMP, the fire department and Qulliq Energy Corporation, were run ragged.
They were trying to look after the elders and the infirm first, and to coordinate things as best they could in the midst of chaos.
"How do you manage with limited resources?" Hussey asked later, launching a string of rhetorical questions into the air.
How do you coordinate information? When do you declare a state of emergency?
"Finally," he said, "your back just broke."
"Disasters are going to happen," Sheutiapik said. "They are going to arise."
She remembers a nine-day blizzard that hit the city when she was growing up.
Sheutiapik said emergency preparedness is just one aspect of the city's long-term planning that she has been working on for the past two years. But it has to be tested and kept up to date.
Glen Higgins, Nunavut's manager of emergency preparedness, who helped the city pull the event together, said the territory's recently updated Emergency Measures Act requires all the hamlets and municipalities to have their emergency response plans and programs brought up to date – and then to be reviewed annually on an ongoing basis.
All the communities had emergency response plans in place previously, he said, but most of them are seriously out of date now, and some have even disappeared, often as a result of staff turnover.
His job, he explained, is to work with the communities, to help them get back on track. The GN also acts as a funnel for federal funding to pay for the work.
"It's a step-by-step process," he said. "We're not just making laws and checking once in a while. We're working with the hamlets along the way."
Higgins said it's important to get all the agencies who will have a role to play in an emergency working together, so that everyone knows their roles, and the lines of communication are already in place beforehand.
Staff Sgt. Peter Pilgrim, who recently arrived in Iqaluit to take charge of RCMP operations here, also participated in the training. "Everyone here is part of a big team," he said. "You have to plan so you are prepared for anything."
Pilgrim was stationed in Rankin last year, when that community experienced its seven-day blizzard and power was down for several days. There were also food shortages on store shelves.
Rankin did not have an emergency procedures plan completed and in place at the time, he said.
They had been working on it, he said, and the different agencies managed to work together pretty well. But "when you have a plan everybody knows their role, what to do and how to do it. You also have lines of communication established. You know who to contact and how."
"You don't want to be exchanging business cards and phone numbers when the emergency hits," Glen Higgins said.
"They say ‘practice makes perfect'," Sheutiapik added, but she learned a variation on that saying during the training that she wants to apply to the emergency response plan:
"Perfect practice makes perfect," she said.