Go behind the scenes on COVID-19 emergency planning in small towns

Published: April 20, 2020

Volunteer firefighter chief in charge of emergency planning Susan Haldane

With 1,300 souls distributed among a collection of farms, homes, and cottages, the Township of Chisholm is like many of the places you sweep through on your way to your cottage: small, rural, fairly quiet. You might think it’s the sort of place where there isn’t much call for an emergency plan. But you’d be wrong. 

That’s because Ontario law requires every municipality to have an emergency plan, and with good reason. When the bridge goes out, the ice storm strikes—or yes, a pandemic sweeps its pale fingers through the populace—even small municipalities need a way to manage it. In Chisholm, I’m part of that response, as the township’s Community Emergency Management Co-ordinator (CEMC).

I liken emergency management to jazz: it sounds freewheeling, but there’s a whole lot of structure and knowhow underneath. When it’s time to perform, you need players who know their chops and riff off one another in the same key. But because no two performances are the same, you also want a band that can improvise. 

That’s why every emergency plan needs to be tailored to its home turf (even if it’s based on a provincial template), regularly reviewed, and practised in “tabletop” exercises. Because you can’t predict every crisis out there, you need a general approach that will manage almost anything. As for likely hazards—wildfires, flooding, blackouts—it helps to have a more detailed, specific plan.  

COVID-19 offers a good example. Last winter, when Chisholm reviewed its local hazards, “infectious disease” made the short list. In the following weeks as the novel coronavirus spread through China and into neighbouring countries, older plans to respond to an influenza pandemic were reworked to develop an updated pandemic plan. Before the outbreak reached our area, the plan required:

-Staff training and a briefing to council on the best available science about the virus, its symptoms, and how to prevent transmission. 

-Department-level plans to maintain key municipal functions during an outbreak, including setting priorities; dealing with shortages in key supplies; coping with labour shortages if employees fall ill; changing work tasks and areas to promote social distancing and reduce face-to-face contact; and looking for ways to help vulnerable citizens, including people who are sick, quarantined, elderly, etc. 

Now that these policies have kicked into gear, municipal services look different. No longer can you amble into the municipal office and lean on the counter. Now the door is locked, and you need to call or email to discuss your issues.

If you call 911 with flu-like symptoms and the volunteer fire department gets there before the ambulance, you’ll be treated by a single firefighter (fully kitted out in mask and face shield) rather than a team of two or three. That helps us conserve our protective equipment, limit potential COVID-19 exposure, and still help you. 

Sick and need groceries or prescriptions? Call the township office and, subject to fires and other emergencies, we’ll dispatch a volunteer firefighter to deliver the order.

And if you want to have a campfire, sorry. The province is banning fires across most of northern and eastern Ontario, in part to limit the potential COVID-19 exposure to Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry firefighters.  

The problem is our “normal” emergencies, including forest fires, flooding, windstorms, and prolonged hydro outages won’t stop for the new coronavirus. COVID-19 will be an additional longer-term stress laid atop those everyday crises. Can we get through it? Sure. But even in small, quiet Chisholm, the help and co-operation of residents and cottagers won’t just make life easier for the CEMC—it has the potential to prevent illness and misery, and save lives. 

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