Province ignored warnings months before Slave Lake disaster, ex-public safety boss says

Province ignored warnings months before Slave Lake disaster, ex-public safety boss says

19 May 2012

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Canada — Alberta’s former top public safety official says he warned the government months before the Slave Lake fire that it was ill-equipped to protect the public in the event of a major disaster.

And in the wake of a new report that finds there were poor communications and a delayed evacuation of the town, Dave Hodgins said Saturday he hopes the province will finally give the Alberta Emergency Management Agency he used to head the power to co-ordinate the response to major disasters.

“It makes my blood boil to think the lives of firefighters and residents were unnecessarily put at risk,” Hodgins said in an interview.

“Ministers and deputy ministers were told this could happen and they chose to ignore that advice.”

An independent review released this week found the potential fire behaviour implications of the weather advisories issued by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development were not provided to local authorities or the 7,000 residents in the days before flames consumed one-third of the northern Alberta town.

Bill Sweeney, a retired RCMP supervisor who headed the review, suggested the department needs to work with the AEMA to put in place a consistent incident command system to ensure information is better shared during the early stages of a disaster.

“Managers from SRD and the town need to be in the same room talking to each other so informed decisions can be made,” Sweeney said in an interview.

“We were damn lucky there weren’t multiple fatalities.”

The report found many citizens evacuated only after the wildfires had encroached into the community and homes were on fire on the Sunday evening. At that point, police officers had insufficient information regarding safe routes out or muster points.

If he had been given timely and complete information about the fire’s proximity to town and the potential for high winds, Sweeney said he would have told residents on Saturday to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice. When the wind-whipped fires spread into groves of black spruce near the town the next afternoon, he said he would have ordered people then to evacuate.

“I am an armchair quarterback, but that’s what I would have done,” Sweeney said.

“The crucial point is with the increased potential now for more wildland, urban interface fires, we need to ensure there’s a command structure where that information is shared quickly.”

Hodgins said AEMA could have performed that co-ordination role during the Slave Lake disaster if the province had implemented the recommendation of a 2005 report — ordered in the aftermath of a poorly managed train derailment and oil spill west of Edmonton — that said the agency should report directly to the premier’s office.

“Sweeney’s done a good job, but I’m afraid it will be another waste of government resources to produce a report that will just gather dust.” he said

“Give the agency (AEMA) the authority to do its job at two in the morning, so it doesn’t have to call and ask permission from 15 bureaucrats,”

After three years as AEMA’s managing director, Hodgins said he resigned in frustration in September 2010 because he felt hamstrung at co-ordinating the province’s response to the H1N1 outbreak and widespread flooding in southern Alberta.

“It wasn’t about having better toys or a bigger budget, but it was about having the ability to collect information and make decisions during a disaster that could save lives,” he said.

SRD spokesman Mark Cooper said the department should not have assumed that information it was sharing with Slave Lake’s fire chief during the disaster was being passed on to town officials.

Cooper said SRD and AEMA have begun cross-training their duty officers and conducting more crisis simulations to improve co-ordination of how wildfires are handled.

Colin Lloyd, AEMA’s current managing director, said KPMG is completing a review of the response by all provincial and municipal agencies to the disaster that will be released this fall.

While the disaster was too much for Slave Lake to handle on their own, Lloyd said he would balk at a system where his agency would have usurped the municipality’s power to decide when to evacuate.

“We wouldn’t, for example, parachute an incident management team into a situation and almost de facto take over,” he said.

“That’s not the way it works in Alberta.”

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