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City brushes up on tornado preparedness

Roughly 85 city staff members took part in a ‘tabletop’ exercise this month to assess and practice St. Albert's ability to respond to a tornado.

The City of St. Albert held a rehearsal this month for an event it hopes will never happen.

Roughly 85 city staff members gathered in the city's new Incident Command Post at Fire Hall No. 1 to take part in a "tabletop" exercise to sharpen St. Albert's ability to respond to a tornado.

Tabletop exercises, compared to functional or full-scale exercises, expose procedural and policy-based shortcomings in the city's emergency response plan, Mark Pickford, the city's new emergency management manager, said. 

“This exercise is called ‘Supercell’ — it's based on a supercell and severe weather (event) that initially will be in the Sturgeon County area, and then it'll impact Morinville and the northeast corner of St. Albert,” Pickford said. “The exercise is built around a 'before,' 'during,' and 'after' piece.”

Staff from each department were presented with details of the hypothetical tornado, and tasked with identifying the necessary steps for each phase of the situation. 

For example, before an expected tornado was to touch down, information officers needed to assess how the city would alert residents, while logistics staff would need to source and assemble resources.

Unlike other disastrous events such as wildfires, the "during" part of the exercise was limited. 

“It's pretty hard to stop a tornado,” Pickford joked. 

“After (a tornado) is what we call the Emergency Management Continuum,” he said. That includes damage assessment, search and rescue, continued sourcing of supplies, and collaborating with other municipalities. 

“There's a huge piece to that, so it's an incident within itself,” he said.

Another aspect of the "after" response is working with nearby municipalities on a mutual aid basis. As the name implies, mutual aid can be thought of as two entities agreeing to help each other without the expectation of repayment.

“Mutual aid agreements are, ‘I'll help you if you help me,’" Pickford said. "That's the tenent, the core value of it. It doesn't matter what the trigger or the incident is.”

St. Albert has one such mutual aid agreement, the Capital Region Emergency Preparedness Partnership (CREPP), with a number of municipalities in the Edmonton region. It has been in place for over 20 years. 

Last summer the City of St. Albert and Town of Morinville signed a mutual aid agreement for firefighting services.

“The intent is to basically find out what we don't have, because the whole point of doing these things is to find the holes, the gaps,” Pickford said. “The more we find those gaps now, the better we can prepare ourselves.”

Practising for a tornado in St. Albert was not a random choice, Pickford said. The provincial government requires municipalities to complete at least one tabletop exercise each year for the hazardous scenario thought most likely to occur. The last tabletop exercise city staff completed was actually over four years ago in 2019, as the COVID-19 pandemic presented a long-lasting emergency situation and caused the postponement of other preparedness practice.

Given the last exercise took place in 2019, and with knowledge gained through the pandemic, Pickford said he expects policy changes or tweaks may arise after the results of the exercise are analyzed.

“We're trying to break out of the COVID slow-moving disaster to a no-notice, two- to seven-days type activation,” he said. “That will generate a lot of things that we probably didn't think of and didn't assume, so we'll have to re-write a bunch of policy, procedural, and plan pieces.”

Pickford joined the city in November after a 24-year military career and another eight years as a field officer with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA). With AEMA, the legislated leadership team for all emergency and disaster events across the province, Pickford was responsible for training and assisting 70 municipalities, including St. Albert, in developing and practising emergency response plans.

City spokesperson Marci Ng said residents looking to brush up on their own emergency preparedness can visit the "Emergency Preparedness" page on the city's website to find checklists, 72-hour survival kit instructions, and a list of city-communication channels to subscribe to. 

“That's all available on our website and we have a public safety open house on June 4, and that's in-tandem with the Children's Festival,” Ng said. The open house will be located on the St. Anne Promenade.

“We're going to bring our regional partners together and show residents everyone who works together, and how we work together as a cohesive unit when an incident happens.”

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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