Trial by Fire
Fort McMurray blaze highlights importance of EFAP, preparedness.
In May 2016, more than 80,000 people were evacuated from the Fort McMurray, Alta., area as a raging wildfire swept towards the town. While the fire had been under watch, the speed at which it grew and travelled towards Fort McMurray caught both residents and firefighters off guard, requiring swift action to ensure all were safe.
As an employee and family assistance program (EFAP) provider to several employers in the region, Morneau Shepell began mobilizing its resources as soon as the threat of danger was realized. And last November, the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association recognized the company with its award for Best Delivery of or Innovation in Critical Incident Response Services for its efforts to assist the trauma victims of the Fort McMurray wildfire.
Here’s a look at what transpired, and how organizations can be better prepared for such disasters in the future.
HINDSIGHT IMPROVES FORESIGHT
Effective disaster preparedness is a three-step process: pre-event planning, mobilization, and post-event support and improvement. To refine best practices, these three phases have to operate in a continuous loop, reinforcing each other.
The challenge in pre-planning for an event such as the Fort McMurray fire involves having predictable activities in place for an unpredictable situation. No matter what the specific crisis entails, it is possible to anticipate the unpredictable and have pre-work done ahead of time, so it’s easier to respond. For many organizations, this means designing an emergency preparedness plan where a high-level response strategy has been devised and made ready to set in motion.
Too often, however, these plans only deal with a company’s “stuff” — property and logistics — and don’t address the needs of the most important resource, people, who will be in need of on-the-ground support.
When it became clear there was imminent danger to employees in Fort McMurray, Morneau Shepell’s first move was to contact these client organizations directly to discuss plans. Next, verification was required to ensure the EFAP had the capacity to provide support for a large group of trauma victims. These ensuing steps included network mobilization, readying resources to be deployed as needed, reorganizing internally to co-ordinate resources so there were no gaps or duplication of effort, and maintaining a good understanding of the on-the-ground reality so plans could be adapted as necessary.
Despite a thorough planning process, there was some uncertainty because the scale of the operation and the duration of the support provided were abnormal as a result of the fire’s unpredictable nature.
When it comes to disasters like these, companies and EFAP providers can never be too prepared. Some improvisation or adaption is necessary, but it should not all be reactive. It is important to review all data that is available in any given situation and make informed decisions that follow best practices.
The provision of EFAP services, while a process-driven function, is most importantly people-focused. Some of Morneau Shepell’s own counsellors lived and worked in Fort McMurray and experienced first-hand what residents were going through.
Garett Guenot, an EFAP counsellor at Morneau Shepell, evacuated to Calgary and reached out to clients who had been evacuated all over the country.
“I provided support for them over the phone and also started seeing clients who had been evacuated to Calgary,” he says. “What astonished me the most was how grateful they were that so many people, including our company, were reaching out to help them and support them.”
Morneau Shepell quickly made the decision to provide trauma support to all Fort McMurray residents and their extended families, not just those employed by client organizations. On-site counselling was made available for anyone who needed it, and a toll-free hotline was opened to people across Canada looking for support.
It was critical throughout the process that counselling teams worked closely with first responders to ensure a collaborative environment of support.
Morneau Shepell regularly re-evaluated and revised plans concerning where to set up services, and deployed RV counselling units at evacuation centres to offer support for evacuees.
The company also took an “over-service versus under-service” approach, mobilizing more support resources than ended up being needed. At the time, this overabundance of resources allowed the counselling teams to be nimble and respond effectively as evacuation centres were stabilized — but it was imperative to improve upon this strategy. This lesson was applied this year following the flooding in Gatineau, Que.
AFTERMATH AND ONGOING SUPPORT
Months after the fire, Morneau Shepell is still providing support to those affected — both in Fort McMurray and across Canada. The municipality estimates the post-fire population is less than 74,000, while two years ago the 2015 municipal census pegged the number of permanent residents at more than 82,000.
Once people started returning home, Morneau Shepell saw a spike in demand for trauma support services. The one-year anniversary of the fire produced a similar surge. The community may be shrinking, but the demand for support services is growing.
“Recovery is not a timeline but a process — one that will be reflected not only in the trees and buildings, but also in the citizens of Fort McMurray for years to come,” says Guenot.
ADVICE FOR EMPLOYERS IN PREPARING FOR EMERGENCIES
Create a plan: An effective business continuity plan extends beyond infrastructure rebuilding after a disaster strikes. The plan must recognize the “people factor” to be successful.
Think about including these elements in your plan:
- Ensure you have steps in place to get people the help they need in times of trauma. Consider, for example, introducing a peer team, comprised primarily of volunteers, who provide active listening support to co-workers, and refer them to professional resources as necessary. Keep in mind that local employees will be focusing on themselves and their families; resources outside of the crisis zone should be called upon for peer support.
- The plan should address the needs of employees’ family members. Staff won’t be able to work effectively if they are worried about the safety of their loved ones.
- The plan should extend beyond the time of crisis itself; in the aftermath of a crisis, employees may need time or support to re-establish themselves, their households, and their routines.
Test for viability: One small misstep — such as a break in the employee communication chain or failure to include an essential service — can cause even the best-laid plan to fall apart. It’s best to discover any shortcomings through crisis simulations before your organization needs to implement the plan in an emergency.
Implement a regular review process: Too often, a business continuity plan is created and then put aside until the need arises, which could be years later. During that time, certain services may have become less essential and others more so, the company may have grown, and perspectives may have changed. Be sure to revisit the plan on a regular basis and revise as needed.
Deployment and adjustments: Even though there is a well-thought-out plan, each situation will be unique. When you go into action, you need a pre-designated core team and very regular check-ins to determine if the plan is on track, what else needs to be considered, and what needs adjustment. The flexibility to adjust and adapt the plan to the current situation using a predictable methodology will help to ensure a successful outcome.
By Barb Veder and Noi Quao. Both at Morneau Shepell, Barb Veder is vice-president of clinical services and research lead in Ottawa, and Noi Quao is manager of traumatic event support services in Toronto. This article originally appeared in HR Reporter on July 10, 2017 and is reprinted here with permission from Thomson Reuters Canada Ltd.