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Light shed on preparedness

Emergency plans gain attention
Cities, firms devise new measures

Toronto Star - August 14, 2004
by Richard Brennan

The lights were out, but everybody was home.

A satellite photo of North America showed most of Ontario and the U.S. eastern seaboard in darkness, with about 50 million people affected.

People were trapped in elevators and subways, traffic lights were out and people relying on ventilators and home dialysis units were growing anxious.

Today is the anniversary of the blackout and people in the business of preparing for natural and man-made disasters are wondering if we are any better prepared now than a year ago.

Most experts on emergency preparedness say things are better now because the blackout highlighted weaknesses in their systems or just provided a real-life exercise to try out their emergency plans, many of them holdovers from Y2K initiatives.

"We are better prepared today than we were last year ... and we are working with a long-term group so we can get keep an updated list of people who are ventilator dependent," says Peter Macintyre, manager of community safeguard services for Toronto Emergency Medical Services.

And now there is a plan in place to protect the Toronto subway system from rotating power disruptions, which usually follow major blackouts, according to TTC general manager Rick Ducharme.

Dr. James Young, Ontario's commissioner of emergency management, says if there is another major blackout, measures can be taken to make sure the power plants, especially the nuclear facilities, power up more quickly. "Everyone agrees that lessons have to be learned and we have to do a better job," Young says, noting that hospitals responded best with emergency power systems kicking in immediately.

"Our aim was to bring the (power) back as smoothly as we could and not have any further blackouts and we achieved that. And, obviously, then at the same time to make sure that people's lives are safe."

Young says from the point of view of an emergency, "it actually went very well, but we did learn lessons just the same," including seeing to it that water and sewage treatment plants have generators for backup. "Water and sewage treatment plants were a concern and that was an important lesson because that is a real health concern," he says.

Steve Orsini, vice-president of policy and public affairs for the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA), says hospitals were "very well-equipped for the blackout, the generators were operating," and since then officials have looked at what parts of the hospitals absolutely need to have power.

Orsini says the OHA, working with Emergency Management Ontario, has developed a "multi-layer response plan" based on different types of emergencies, including the kind that would follow a September 11-like attack.

"We have implemented an incident management system model for all hospitals based on September 11, so, depending on the emergency situation, hospitals would be able to invoke different types of emergency responses," he says. Young says individuals have a responsibility to be properly prepared for the next time the lights go out.

"They have to have food that doesn't need heating or have barbecues. They need phones that are rotary dial (which don't rely on electricity), they need either battery radios or wind-up radios. ... People have to be self-reliant to some extent," he says.

Even Premier Dalton McGuinty says he bought a crank radio for his Ottawa home in case of a blackout. Emergency Management Ontario's website provides video information on how families can put together three-day survival kits.

A study by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) released this week shows that Ontario residents are not well-prepared for emergencies and disasters. Brenda Murphy, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and author of the report, says the research found "that emergency preparedness is not a high priority for most people."

Murphy reports that of the 1,203 people called in February, only 13 per cent said they had emergency kits, consisting of a flashlight with fresh batteries, a three-day supply of canned food and water, a portable battery operated radio, an extra supply of important medicines and a small amount of cash.

Many respondents in the study, she says, just didn't think it was important.

Under the Emergency Readiness Act, all municipalities must have emergency plans filed with the province.

Some requirements are as simple as making sure there is enough gasoline for police, ambulance and fire vehicles and for generators to provide backup power to keep computer and radio systems going. These were all lessons learned from the blackout.

Macintyre says there is no question Toronto EMS is better equipped to handle the emergencies resulting from a blackout, even right down to making sure there are generators to charge up batteries for radios and pagers.

Greg Stasyna, a senior emergency planning officer for the Toronto Police Service, says, "I think we are better prepared because it is still recent in everybody's memory."

Much to their chagrin, Toronto police discovered that their main command centre on Don Mills Rd. was not connected to a backup generator.

"We've improved critical infrastructure within the police. Our command and control systems for major emergencies and disasters have been reviewed and improved," he says, adding that a special operations team, which includes highly trained senior officers and support staff, now responds to all large-scale events, such as a power failure.

District Chief Scott Cowden, who is responsible for the Toronto fire department's emergency management program, says many buildings along Bay St. have installed generators in the last year.

The TTC's Ducharme says the transit system reviewed its measures after the blackout, when it had to get about 20,000 passengers off 20 stalled subway trains.

"Everything seems to work well as far as our training. ... That was the biggest test we've ever had," Ducharme says. "However, we said `what can we learn from this?'"

A report was put together for the commission last fall listing 150 recommendations. Chief among them was a proposal that the TTC work with Toronto Hydro to make sure the subway system is protected from rolling brownouts following a major blackout.

"We identified the 40 substations that would have to be protected and the various feeds into it if our subway was to operate, so now we have all of this in place. ... So I think that is the biggest thing that has happened in the process," Ducharme says. As well, he says, "we ran into problems with Wheel Trans. The dispatch computer really didn't have the backup power ... and we had to do it manually, so the odd person missed a ride, so we put the backup power in there."

OPP Inspector Dan Hefkey, manager of the emergency management section, says it wasn't that the OPP learned a great deal from the blackout in terms of emergency preparedness, but rather that the force satisfied itself that "contingency plans that we had developed were in fact good." The force has about 60 generators at various detachments.

"As a result of Y2K, we had procured for each of our administrative detachments uninterrupted power supplies through generators, so we were able to test those," he says.

Hefkey said the OPP does not, however, have a specific plan telling officers where they will be posted as a result of an emergency, "but we are moving to hazard specific plans."

In the meantime, there is a legislative committee reviewing the Emergency Management Act to determine whether there needs to be additional power given to the province in the event of an emergency, but critics say it's only giving cursory treatment to emergency preparedness.

New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos (Niagara Centre) wants a judicial review of the response to the blackout like the one held after the SARS outbreak. "I'm saying a far more fundamental question is the adequacy of front-line resources ... not whether the province should have the right to seize property without warrant," Kormos says.

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