Public Values

MNR cuts, centralization put public at risk in emergency situations

Record forest fires in Northern Ontario prove need for local staff.

Thomas: ON publicly criticized for forest fire communication deficiencies in 2007; repeating mistakeTORONTO, ON, May 23, 2012: Ontario won't have the staff for smooth, quick evacuations during forest fires and other emergencies if the Ministry of Natural Resources goes ahead with plans to close offices and lay off workers, says the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

"MNR has been underfunded and under-resourced since cuts started in the 1990s," says OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. "Now, the government wants another $50 million out of the budget. There is no place left to cut without putting people and services at risk. And that's exactly what will happen if the Ministry serves Ontarians only from centres in large regions rather than smaller areas."

Gogama is one such vulnerable office. Staffed with nine people, Gogama services an area between Sudbury and Timmins. Though not designated as fire response, some staff were called out to help evacuate the Westree area last week.

  "As record numbers of fires rage out of control in Northern Ontario, poor information flow on the status and handling of the fires could lead to disaster."

They were out again over the long weekend as fires raced toward highways in the area. Within 15 minutes of getting called in to work, Gogama staff were at the office to pick up equipment and hit the roads to evacuate people.

"We were close. We live in the area. We know the roads," says Gail Ballak, a registered professional forester for more than 20 years and president of OPSEU Local 651. "We knew where people would be camping. We got to them quickly and got them out safely." Thomas says the government's plan puts that kind of service in jeopardy.

"There's no way we'll get response time like that if the McGuinty government insists on centralizing services," he says. "They can do that, and the bean counters will call it a success. But when there's a forest fire or other emergency two or three hours' drive from a regional office, response time will lag. And no question — that will be a failure."

There are 42 active fires in Ontario and about 29,000 hectares burning, according to the MNR website. At 324, the number of fires to date this year is more than double last year's 147 and nearly double the 10-year average.

TORONTO, ON, May 24, 2012: With cuts to emergency information staff, Ontario could be headed for its own firestorm such as British Columbia had in 2003 with unprecedented forest fire damage.

Firestorm, a BC report, cited a lack of trained communicators to get timely, accurate information out to the public and media. As record numbers of fires rage out of control in Northern Ontario, poor information flow on the status and handling of the fires could lead to disaster, according to Thomas.

"Of the four seasoned professionals dedicated to forest fire communications, only one remains," says Thomas. "That's a 75 percent reduction in expertise. Northerners are wondering whether to leave their homes, afraid for their safety and their possessions. They need information. Ontario was publicly criticized for forest fire communications deficiencies in 2007 and is repeating the mistake."

Media and the public have had to turn to police, fire and municipal services. Information pieced together from various sources may not be complete, current or accurate, according to Pierre Verhelst, an aircraft maintenance engineer and president of OPSEU Local 605.

"Fire departments, the OPP, local police and municipal leaders have their own jobs to do during emergencies. They can hardly be expected to do MNR's work as well," says Verhelst. "Without proper staffing in MNR's emergency information services, citizens are not hearing what they need to hear, when they need to hear it and with the level of detail they need."

The area of Northern Ontario that's on fire is equivalent to a 6-km swath from Mississauga to the east end of Oshawa; yet, there has been little media coverage outside the North. When the MNR cut information staff, it also cut the service that provided video to news outlets.

"When nobody's telling the story, public safety is further compromised," says Thomas. "This is a full-blown crisis. It is irresponsible, to say the least, for our provincial government to be taking the risks it's taking with people's safety and property."

According to the MNR website, 11 new fires since yesterday bring the total to 335.

Links and sources
  Natural Resources plan will jeopardize emergency response time
  Northern Ontario in crisis: emergency information not getting through

Posted: May 30, 2012

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  Public services
  Front lines

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