A Look Back at Fort McMurray and the Technological Advancements that Improved Disaster Recovery Efforts
November marks the six-month anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfires, a catastrophe which mobilized a nation, and became the costliest natural disaster in Canada’s history. As the restoration process in Fort McMurray comes to a close, and a once uprooted community begins to settle back into its old rhythm, it’s a good time to look back and reflect on what we learned during our time on the ground, including the key lessons we can take away from the commercial and residential restoration of Fort McMurray.
The Central Role of Technology
- Advancements in information processing, like the e-permits system issued by The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, helped streamline the process of applying for building permits, minimizing delays in workflow. Digitizing this system meant that permits were issued within days rather than weeks or months. FirstOnSite fielded over 800 residential claims in Fort McMurray and the e-permits, along with our own mobileCT technology, were pivotal in making procedures easy and orderly.
- Aerial imaging and GIS integration were also used during the first response period in Fort McMurray, allowing us to assess damages prior to the June 1st re-entry date.
- The Fire Assessment Tool released by The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and the Government of Alberta’s Fort McMurray Damage Map Application were also used by restoration companies, first responders and evacuated residents to paint a picture of damages sustained by homes and neighbourhoods prior to re-entry.
A Blueprint for Effective Communications
The unprecedented real-time exchange of information between restoration teams, government and residents throughout the entire restoration process in Fort McMurray had huge implications for getting the community back up and running. Town hall conference calls were hosted by government officials to ensure that nearly 90,000 evacuated residents were aware of the progress and status of the restoration process. A multi-platform communications strategy was launched by the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) to keep the public safe and aware during and after the wildfires. The AEMA’s use of traditional and digital platforms was very successful, and could be used as a blueprint for future disaster communications and information-sharing within communities. For FirstOnSite, consistent communication was tied to our commitment to the customer experience. Widespread access to mobile networks and high-speed internet allowed us to keep our customers informed on the status of their restoration projects, and to act as the “eyes on the ground” for evacuated residents and business owners.
Putting People First
Throughout our mobilization in the region, FirstOnSite never lost sight of our commitment to helping the community of Fort McMurray through its darkest hours. This destructive wildfire emphasized the importance of putting people at the center of the restoration process, and of operating as trusted community members. While the sheer scale of the disaster amplified an emotionally challenging environment, FirstOnSite’s residential and commercial acted as community supporters and restoration experts as Fort McMurray began to rebuild. This disaster truly underscored the importance and value of building a support system when rebuilding a community.
Disaster Resilience Matters
In reflecting on the wildfires, it’s important to also consider what can be done to prevent similar situations and how we can further streamline the response process. Disaster resiliency planning means building communities in a way that they can withstand future threats. In this case, it can include building better highways to allow for two-way access to remote areas like Fort McMurray, and to facilitate evacuation in the event of a catastrophe. We can also make better use of aerial imagery technology, while regulating drone use to prevent airspace obstructions during first response. Bylaws need to reconsider the use of combustible materials in the construction of homes, and homeowners should be encouraged to adopt FireSmart measures to protect homes during wildfires. In addition to infrastructure development, communities can be empowered by sharing fire safety knowledge and best practices.
The Fort McMurray wildfires are a reminder that disaster response, restoration and resilience continues to play an important role in the everyday lives of Canadians. Six months after the wildfires, we are looking back on the important lessons learned during our mobilization in the region, and we encourage Canadians nationwide to do the same.