At the Nov. 12 meeting, town council was briefed on its responsibilities in the event of an emergency or disaster, and what kinds of roles, duties and powers that might entail for individual members of council, or council as a whole.
Mark Murphy, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) field officer for southern Alberta, outlined council’s responsibilities before, during and after an emergency.
“A lot of places I go to, people say ‘It’s never going to happen here,’” said Murphy.
“But I think as you’ve noticed, there’s been a lot of events in southern Alberta, and in Alberta, that have caused large-scale emergencies or disasters. High River is one that is very close to mind right now, Slave Lake is another. But there’s been a lot of events that have happened that have the local authority to enact it’s emergency management plan, to declare a state of local emergency, or operate their emergency operations centre.”
Under the Municipal Government Act (MGA), in an emergency, a municipality may take whatever actions or measures are necessary to eliminate the emergency (Part 13 – Sec. 551).
Under the Emergency Management Act, a local authority is at all times responsible for the direction and control of the local authority’s emergency response (Sec. 11), unless a senior level of government assumes direction and control (Sec. 18).
“It’s important to have the pieces in place prior to the start of an event. You’re going to save lives, you’re going to save properties, citizens will be squared away and will understand what is happening,” said Murphy.
An Emergency Advisory Committee advises on the development of emergency plans and programs, and are reviewed yearly. The committee functions in an advisory role to council, and can be a committee of the whole.
A director of emergency management prepares and coordinates municipal emergency management programs with agency assistance, including arranging training, exercises and grants, is responsible for emergency operations, co-ordinates emergency services and resources during a large scale emergency or disaster, and ensures someone is designated to assume responsibilities in their absence.
“A disaster is a serious event to the safety, health and welfare of people, but more importantly it’s going to require all hands on deck, all of your neighbours are going to have to help, the provincial government is going to come, the federal government is going to come, EPCOR, people like that are all going to show up, and everyone is here to help,” said Murphy.
“But if you don’t have a plan in place, a program with some training and exercises, everyone is going to show up and nobody is going to know who is in charge, what’s going to happen, or who is going to do what.”
The Alberta Emergency Management Agency is chaired by the director of emergency management. Members of this agency are representatives of the core responding organizations in the community, and assist in preparing and implementing the Municipal Emergency Management Program.
A state of local emergency can be obtained through declaration if conditions of emergency exist or may exist and may require the use of extrordinary powers (Sec. 21 of the Emergency Management Act). Power to declare or renew is invested to a local authority who, by resolution, may make a declaration relating to all or an part of the municipality. Section 23.1 waives notice requirement for a meeting.
“One of the things that we want to do is make sure the town has a program in place, does the preparation required, does the training and the exercises, so when it does happen — and it will happen — things will much more smoothly, and things will get back to normalcy,” said Murphy.
Through Sec. 203, council may by bylaw delegate the power to declare a state of local emergency to a council committee, the chief administrative officer, or a designated officer.
Extraordinary powers under a local state of emergency include forcing an evacuation, confiscation of personal property, demolition of buildings or removal of structures, maintenance of essential facilities, distribution of essential supplies, and coordination of essential services.
“Your citizens will be looking to you, to the Town of Taber, for help,” said Murphy. “We have some of that already, you have your fire, police, ambulance that are going to be your first responders. But you may have an event where you have to evacuate. Evacuating a large number of people can get pretty tricky. So the town has to be prepared. If the town needs assistance from the provincial government — and you can call upon us, as High River did. We have lots of resources that can come and help. If you need federal government assistance, often it’s the military that comes in.”
Other extraordinary powers include requiring individuals to give aid if qualified, evacuation and removal of livestock from endangered properties, requiring individuals to assist in any way to carry out these actions, and the ability to fix prices of food, fuel. clothing and other essential supplies.
A state of local emergency lapses after seven days, but can be renewed. The public, adjacent municipalities, and the provincial government must be advised. No action will lie against a local authority or a person acting under the local authority’s direction or authorization for anything done or omitted to be done in good faith while carrying out a power or duty under this act or the regulations during a local state of emergency (Emergency Management Act, Sec. 28).
Before an emergency or disaster, council is responsible for appointing members of council to an emergency advisory committee, establishing an emergency management agency, appointing a director of emergency management, review of the program and plan on a yearly basis, direct and control the emergency response planning, and ensure planning and operations are carried out.
During an emergency, council is responsible for approving extraordinary measures by authorizing a state of local emergency, approving the call out of mutual aid resources, directing media information and briefings, hosting dignitaries and officials, and being prepared to deploy an elected official to a reception centre.
After an emergency, council is responsible for overseeing recovery operations, termination of the declaration of a state of local emergency, preparing final media information and briefings, and ensuring debriefing is conducted and recommendations are implemented.
Field officers for AEMA can assist municipalities to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from large emergencies and disasters, assist in the development and review of municipal emergency management programs, assist in exercises, assist and support during disasters and emergencies, facilitate training programs and training grants in the region, regional developments, disaster recovery program applications, and municipal wildfire assistance program applications.
“Scream and yell and run like hell is not an emergency plan,” joked Murphy. “That’s true, so we have to keep moving forward with getting a plan together with your own departments and neighbours.”