Saturday, December 9, 2017

Letter to the Editor: MD's Fire Debrief "Smoke and Mirrors"

Pat Whitmyer - There is a growing number of municipal district (MD) ratepayers who are deeply troubled by the increasingly apparent unprofessional and ineffective leadership at the municipal district building in Pincher Creek.

Of particular concern: 

The MD Kenow Debrief is factually inaccurate, it lacks basic professional standards (spell-check for one, and gaining consensus from other participating agencies prior to publishing, for another) and includes a mystifying executive summary that reads more like a personal narrative.

The MD's emergency and disaster personnel were on the exact same information distribution channels for Kenow Fire as every other managing officer from every other agency involved in the Unified Command. To say that critical information regarding the fire movement was not given to the MD borders on ludicrous. How is it possible that all the other agencies, on the same communication channels as the MD, 'got the memo' and did their job, but our own local government didn't? Unless of course, the official fire information was being sent through Facebook?

The MD claims their emergency response system 'worked', when it clearly fell short in at lease three key areas: putting out a cautionary advance voluntary evacuation notice, managing the mandatory evacuation, and actually fighting the fire. Our Waterton neighbours had been put on voluntary evacuation notice nearly SIX days prior to September 11th. They had been fully evacuated THREE days prior to September 11th. Even the bison, whose paddock borders MD ranchers' fencelines, had been loaded up and evacuated out of province in anticipation of the fire's potential to reach the grasslands. At the very least, would these occurrences not have raised the MD's concerns enough to merit them calling a voluntary evacuation alert for southern Twin Butte around the same time? On the night of the fire, in the mere minutes between when those evacuations were finally sent out (which could only be authorized by the MD) it was not our municipal government banging on people's door, it was RCMP and Park Wardens (using outdated maps from 2008, provided by the MD, that were part of the MD's 2017 emergency response materials). And finally, once Kenow pounced through parts of Twin Butte, it was rate payers who fought the grassfires in the days that followed. 

This begs the questions: Where on earth was the MD? Were they sleeping at the helm when Waterton was emptied out on September 8th? Did they not hear City of Calgary fire trucks laying on the horn as they raced through the smoke past the Twin Butte Hall during the MD's hastily organized community information session? Were they not alarmed when provincial fire representatives at that same meeting told rate-payers to roll propane tanks away from their buildings, move their cattle and consider cutting their fences to give livestock escape routes? Why was a precautionary evacuation alert not issued at this time? Why were ratepayers attending the information session at Coalfields school, on the night of the fire, told by municipal leadership, on camera, that "it was business as usual"? Why did the MD's emergency response plan not have up-to-date maps and rate payer contact information? Why were they not ready and equipped to fight grassfires? If, in fact, their system "worked" as stated in the MD's commissioned Kenow Debrief...

There are accounts of municipal district leadership banishing provincial fire-expert liaisons from MD operations headquarters. Those people were there SPECIFICALLY to support municipalities unaccustomed to large-scale emergencies. If the MD didn't know how to interpret some of the fire data given to them by Unified Command, as they suggest in their debrief, then did they not have a very real responsibility to ask for, and accept help from their own members who have experience in wildfire, from the provincial wildfire experts standing beside them, or from the federal disaster operations agency working on the other side of the wall? What is most important when an inferno is racing towards one's boundary.... ego or emergency?

If MD personnel is trained to perform emergency operations from only one specific space, the Council Chambers, then it appears highly amateur to have invited another agency to utilize that space. If the Council Chambers are a critical resource to the MD's emergency plan (which seems rather limiting), then one would anticipate that it should never been made UNavailable. The very nature of emergencies is that they could happen at any time. And, it can be assumed, the probability of an emergency becomes more likely when a neighbouring jurisdiction has fully evacuated all their people 5 kilometres from the MD rancher fencelines. Why would the MD offer that space in the first place? And worse yet, complain about it after the fact? 

Of particular concern, is that the MD's debrief was authored by Kenneth Kendall Consulting and MSC Consulting Ltd. As noted in the Calgary Herald, Kendall was hired in 2015 by the municipality of Pincher Creek to provide emergency management training to staff and to assist the MD with creating a regional emergency management plan - a plan that fell short when actually put into action. This consultant is also a former municipal Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and well-acquainted with the MD's Chief Administrative Officer. How is this not a conflict of interest? How can ratepayers possibly be expected to believe that the story told in the MD Debrief is not biased towards making the consultant and CAO look good by having been 'victimized' by other personnel and agencies?

A new Regional Municipal Emergency Plan was adopted in March 2017, and yet, as of December, there is no information about this plan available to the public on the MD website or any other internet search. Ratepayers' concerns are supposedly allayed with the following statement on the MD website: "The Regional Emergency Management Plan has been created to provide a prompt and coordinated response to emergencies. The plan makes arrangements for extraordinary measures to protect the health, safety, and welfare of all persons within the region" and yet... there is no document or link to tell us just exactly what that plan was, or is. The links to "Disaster Services FAQ" and "Regional Emergency Management Organization" are also blank. So... what WAS the plan, folks?

Ratepayers, frustrated by what appears to be an attempt to smear-blame for emergency response shortcomings, may wish to FOIPP municipal communications regarding the implementation of that plan. Alarmingly, however, the FOIPP Coordinator for the municipality is the CAO, and Director of Emergency Response, herself. What measures are in place to ensure due process will be followed.

The current CAO was, in fact, dismissed from her previous role as CAO in Coldstream ('Coldstream Council Cans Administrator', 2008) just prior to being hired in Pincher Creek, indicating possible poor performance in this type of role in the past and an alarming lack of due diligence on the part of the MD hiring committee. The CAO's contract was up for renewal in November of this year. Council has tabled the decision twice. 

The MD has a long history of closed doors policy, including a recent "Code of Conduct" motion that, in essence, prohibits communication between Councillors and ratepayers outside of the MD building and the watchful eyes of the CAO. The level of mistrust between the CAO and ratepayers has gotten to the point where some ratepayers write letters to their Councillor, seal the envelope with scotch tape, and write their name across it in an attempt to ensure that their concerns aren't intercepted. 

The Kenow Fire Debrief is a petty personal narrative attempting to deflect ratepayers frustration from the real issue at hand - ineffective leadership. Sadly, it is also an accurate reflection of the professionalism at the municipality's top level. In short, that document is a "smoke and mirrors" attempt to pass-the-buck on the fact that either the Regional Municipal Emergency Plan failed or those responsible for implementing it did. This leaves all the rate-payers, in all five MD districts, at risk in future disasters. The MD leadership has held the whip over elected Councillors, hard-working municipal staff and contributing ratepayers to the detriment of the community for far too long.

Now THAT is the real news, and it is an issue that needs to be brought to light and addressed.

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