Office of Emergency Management keeping Mississauga safe
Amid an array of crises like climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other potential risks facing the future of Mississauga, the city’s emergency management team is on a crusade to keep residents safe during these uncertain times.
The landscape staff work in has become increasingly complex.
Municipalities routinely respond to unforeseen emergencies and disasters requiring first responders, however, some challenges escalate beyond the scope of normal operations, which is when the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) steps in. It is responsible for creating the framework that guides the City to “reduce vulnerability to hazards and increase resiliency to cope with the impacts of a disaster,” according to Mississauga’s Disaster Management Plan.
Most emergencies in the city are handled by first responders like police, the fire service and paramedics. For larger threats like floods, extreme weather, train derailments, and pandemics, the OEM is responsible for ensuring Mississauga and its residents are prepared and safe, whether public safety, health, the environment, critical infrastructure, property and economic stability are suddenly put at risk.
A massive flood event in 2013, which cost the province approximately $932 million in damages and left many pockets of southern Ontario devastated, caused widespread property and infrastructure damage across Mississauga, Brampton and many other parts of the GTA. It closed roads, left people stranded on GO Transit, overwhelmed city stormwater systems causing widespread property damage to homes and was the costliest storm in Ontario’s history. A decade later, as a result of the warming climate, extreme weather events like the 2013 flood that previously occurred once in a century are happening much more often.
The OEM has to be more prepared than ever.
The 2013 flash storm turned parts of Mississauga into a lake.
As the implications of climate change continue to worsen, leading to natural disasters and the increased frequency of heavier than normal storms, municipalities are heading into a future where severe weather-related events, and the damage they bring, pose a different type of threat than in the past.
Mississauga City council declared a climate emergency in 2019, less than a year later the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and devastated Peel region. Staffing shortages, provincial shut downs, economic losses and hospitals overflowing with patients overwhelmed the municipality as it scrambled to keep residents safe, while City operations were crippled.
The Disaster Management Plan, which sets out the roles and responsibilities of each department, is overseen by the OEM and is the blueprint for all emergency management program elements which include five key areas: prevention/mitigation, response, recovery and preparedness activities. The plan is reviewed annually to stay on top of any changes, and ensure training, drills and exercises keep employees prepared in the event of an emergency.
“Every day in emergency management is different and no two days look the same,” Ben Gallagher, manager of OEM, told The Pointer. “As we've seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, and other kinds of larger-scale emergencies, emergencies will continue to be more complex, and impact us in different ways that we might not have anticipated. Especially with the added elements of climate change and how that can impact us in ways we might not have foreseen previously, as well as our reliance on different infrastructure, whether that's telecommunications, transportation, supply chain, networks, and things like that."
Given the complexity of emerging crises, he noted they may not be straightforward. To adapt to these evolving threats, Gallagher said one of the best things the City can do is work with its stakeholders to identify new challenges as they surface.
“We can't just operate as a silo here in the City of Mississauga to respond to emergencies, but we have to work very closely with our different partners because these emergencies are going to be very interconnected.”
The emergency management team is responsible for ensuring the City is compliant with requirements under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act and Ontario Regulation 380/04 which lays out the minimum standards for the city and what it needs to do to meet the compliance requirements under the legislation.
“As a large organization, we're able to go kind of well above and beyond those minimum requirements, so we spend a lot of our time on kind of corporate preparedness activities. So all the development of emergency plans, training in those plans, exercises, etc. to make sure that we are prepared for when emergencies happen,” Gallagher explained.
Ben Gallagher, manager of the City of Mississauga's Office of Emergency Management.
(Paige Peacock/The Pointer)
Then there’s also the actual response side of things, when all of the team’s work comes into play, and staff are able to implement their plans and training across the city.
“Once those responses are over and we move into recovery we're just constantly looking at program excellence, and just making sure we're able to take the lessons learned from those responses and incorporate it into our program moving forward to make our future responses even more efficient and effective and respond to emergencies,” Gallagher said.
“One of our big emphasis and focuses on now is kind of our community preparedness as well. So not just working with the city and kind of our stakeholders, but with our community, our residents as well and different community groups and organizations to make sure they're prepared for different types of emergencies and trying to build that social capital in the community to have those resource sharing networks and social networks, as well.”
Gallagher said different partners across the city and across different levels of government and external organizations have been engaged to coordinate responses to larger scale emergencies.
“I think our biggest benefit of the city is kind of serving as a resource for different departments to utilize us and what we do to help them… whether that's legislatively required or just best practices, plans or training or exercises, we can kind of offer that to those different departments within the city,” Gallagher said. “So other departments can focus on what they need to do to make sure the city's delivering the services and programs to residents that they need, and they can have us be the ones to think about all of the risks and emergencies.”
A lot of what the team does, he explained, is stakeholder engagement which means not just working with the City’s departments but with external partners as well, including the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, local hospitals, conservation authorities, transportation organizations like Metrolinx to make sure the City is maintaining those relationships for emergencies that are not only going to impact the City of Mississauga, but that are going to require coordination across multiple organizations.
The importance of having these plans in place serves as reminders that emergencies are not uncommon. More recently, the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that spilled toxic chemicals and led to a controlled burn of the substances in East Palestine, Ohio, has become one of the highest-profile of its kind in the United States and highlights the reality that these disasters can happen. The wreck, which took place in February, involved roughly 150 train cars en route from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania, about 20 of which were carrying hazardous materials, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. State and federal officials have said repeatedly they have yet to detect dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water.
Disasters like the Ohio train derailment can happen in Mississauga which experienced its own threat firsthand during the 1979 Mississauga chemical train derailment, coined the “Mississauga Miracle.” The massive wreck, which became a defining moment for Mississauga, forced almost a quarter of a million people out of their homes and was, at the time, the largest peacetime evacuation in North American history.
“We have the typical hazards and risks that any large municipality in southern Ontario and Canada would have in terms of thunderstorms, winter storms, things like that. But we also do have a very diverse hazard and risk landscape,” Gallagher acknowledged. “We have Canada's largest airport — the Toronto Pearson International Airport. We have various pipelines, highways, rail lines traveling throughout the city of Mississauga, we also have a large shoreline along the entire southern border of our municipality, as well as multiple watersheds, which are kind of across multiple different conservation authorities as well. So all of those different risks and threats and things like that.
“But I think too, we're a very diverse city as well and we have a very diverse population with people of various different demographics and backgrounds and things like that. So just ensuring that we're able to meet the needs of all of the city's various different unique residents, especially when it comes to challenges that might be faced in different types of emergencies and making sure we're adhering are addressing all of those different unique needs and challenges that might be experienced in the city.”
The team is currently in the process of reviewing and updating the City’s disaster management plan which, pending approval, will be renamed as the emergency management plan. When conducting the upcoming review of the City’s emergency strategy, Gallagher said this year the team will be working toward “simplicity and utility,” making sure the blueprint is concise and straightforward for people when they have to respond to emergencies, but also ensuring it aligns with the challenges facing residents today.
“There might be some unknowns that we can’t take in consideration for that plan, but that's just the nature of emergencies, they're always going to be different and things you can't necessarily always plan for are going to come up. But as long as we have all hazards, general structure of how we're going to respond, who the decision makers are, how we're making those decisions, then I think those plans are more effective.”
In an email to The Pointer, a City spokesperson said the City’s disaster management plan is in the final stages of revision and review by the OEM and other internal departments, adding “As we are still in the process of reviewing, we do not have a timeframe as of yet for bringing forward to Council.”
With Mississauga being an increasingly diverse and vibrant City and more growth anticipated to stream in, Gallagher said part of developing the City’s emergency response strategy also includes taking into consideration the unique needs of such a diverse population that harbours a variety of backgrounds, demographics and challenges, and incorporating them into how the City responds and prepares for different types of emergencies.
“To prepare for that, one of the things we're trying to focus on now is building more of that social capital in the community and fostering some of that social capital. So working with different community organizations and groups and trying to work more directly with residents to not only just tell them, ‘hey, this is what you need to do to be prepared,’ but hear from them, what are some of the challenges they face, especially during emergencies and how can we kind of modify what we do at the City to help them prepare and be able to respond to those unique needs?
“From the time I started to now the risks are always evolving. You don't just write a plan and it sits on the shelf for four years. We're always going back to them, updating them, making changes, and I think it's exciting time to be in emergency management to do all that.”
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