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What Calgary taught us

Calgary's Fire Chief was in Kelowna Thursday, to teach our emergency response agencies about what they learned during the massive 2013 floods.

More than 80 staff representing all Central Okanagan local governments and emergency response agencies attended the presentation geared at keeping our responders prepared and able to handle any type of potential disaster or emergency.

“We thought it was a great opportunity to bring the Chief here and share lessons learned in Calgary with the staff that would deal with a similar type of emergency here in the Central Okanagan,” explained RDCO Emergency Program Coordinator and Deputy Fire Chief Jason Brolund. “We really looked at this as an opportunity to challenge those staff and get them to think really big.”

Calgary Fire Chief Bruce Burrell's presentation included facts, figures, the good, the bad, the people, the hidden humour and the spirit behind his city as they dealt with the massive flooding disaster.

Burrell explained his message has two parts, be prepared and consider that there are different ways to handle every situation.

“The bigger message here is about being prepared and looking at things differently. We tend to handle smaller emergencies in municipalities quite well but tend to become overwhelmed when disasters occur,” said Burrell.

“Some of the things we leaned in the situation with Calgary was to throw the book out on a number of occasions and look at doing things completely differently. Some of those rules have to go out the window because your have to unencumber (sic) yourself so you can make rapid decisions.”

A prime example was the unprecedented influx of volunteers. They asked for 600 on day one and 6,000 showed up, including many from BC.

“We have to throw the book out the window in instances like recording numbers of volunteers, we had 10,000 people showing up a day to give assistance to the City of Calgary, can you imagine having everyone fill out a piece of paper and having to track that?” asked Burrell.

Instead he stated they took the approach that people are philosophically good, so they let them help, without that usual red tape and vetting process.

The response was overwhelming positive with thousands upon thousands volunteering to help complete strangers.

He showed a photo of a sign that he said summed up the community response in Calgary.

It was a piece of plywood painted and nailed to a a tree in the yard of an elderly couple who lost nearly everything. It simply said "We lost some stuff. We gained a community. Thank you!"

The use of social media in a disaster was also a strong focal point of his presentation, he considered it one of the best things they did during the emergency. It got information to people as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Something Kelowna's own Deputy Chief Brolund recognized will play a major role in the future, and something they did not have during the 2003 wildfires.

Regardless of twitter and rules books it stills comes down to being as prepared as possible.

“None of us know when disasters are going to strike, or where they are going to strike. There is a lot of different data out there depending on who you want to listen to. So I would argue that people just need to be better prepared and that there potentially better ways at managing emergencies,”said Burrell.

This sentiment was repeated by Brolund who feels community preparedness is key.

“You know what you can never be 100 per cent ready but we have a great plan in place and a great program for managing emergencies and the likelihood of us facing something that large is not great, but what I do have is confidence that our staff would step up and respond and come up with those really great creative solutions to problems,” said Brolund.

“It is also important that the public be ready to deal with a disaster, local government can only do so much, the public should be prepared for the first 72 hours of this type of event without support from emergency responders.”

Burrell explained the damage costs continue to add up and at the end of the day the floods could cost up to $5 billion. Of which $1.7 billion has already been paid out to home owners and business by insurance companies.

While Brolund confidently believes that every year the Okanagan gets better prepared for a disaster but said it is never to late to keep learning and growing.   

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