On Sept. 14, Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) directors heard how 10 emergency situations in three years stressed that local government’s finances and staff. The following day, its first 2023 Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) activation for the Clowhom Lake wildfire started a new round of those types of unbudgeted for operations.
“A great report full of bad news," was Area E director Donna McMahon’s summation of the committee of the whole presentation on the costs of running EOCs between March 2020 and March 2023.
Eight of those EOC activations, which are done to coordinate how multiple agencies respond to an emergency, were for weather-related events. The exceptions were for the COVID-19 pandemic and last fall’s cyber attack on SCRD IT systems. EOCs were active for a few days in cases related to a 2020 fire at Trout Lake and the 2021 heat dome and for multiple months for the COVID-19 pandemic and 2022 drought.
In total, the SCRD spent almost $1.24 million and was reimbursed for just over 60 per cent ($748,276) by the province. The capital costs related to the incidents totaled $879,858, EOC operations costs were $359,189, and $576,212 was spent on salaries.
Impacts for staff health, retention
Money matters took a back seat to the toll that repeated and extended EOC activations imposed on personnel in the senior management team.
Filling an EOC role, often outside of normal working hours, in addition to doing their ongoing assignment affects work-life balance for impacted staff according to a report.
“Both mental and physical fatigue are risks that may be experienced by employees who are required to work in the EOC and who must also complete their regular job duties…as the incomplete work accumulates, the level of anxiety experienced by these staff members may increase,” it pointed out.
The document said that reality increased the risk that employees would need time off for health reasons or resign to accept less stressful employment. Both outcomes result in lower productivity and higher staffing costs. No specifics were described, but the report said management had “awareness that staff have been absent due to these factors."
In the report, staff detailed actions to improve current practices that have and are being taken. Those included changes in when an EOC is activated, the addition of a staff Health and Safety Officer to EOC operations to monitor hours worked and enforce time away, a review on use of casual hires or contractors for EOC roles and increased training for staff.
No committee recommendations came out of the report but directors and staff agreed to a follow-up presentation in the months to come.
Weather events dominate past costs and future concerns
“With an increase in severe weather events due to climate change, this report and the next steps creates a backbone to … develop and implement adaptation strategies and measures including emergency plans, for priority risk areas” staff noted in its submission to the committee.
During discussion, staff explained that provincial funding for replacement of infrastructure damaged in emergency events is done on a “like for like” basis. If the SCRD wants a “build back better” approach, to ensure such replacements are more climate change resilient, money for the extras would have to come from other sources. It was also noted that funding is only for local government infrastructure. Sites owned by community organizations, including several Coast community halls, would need to rely on insurance or other funding options to repair or rebuild.
Emergencies and their costs
The Nov. 2021 atmospheric river event was the most costly one in the review period. It resulted in two-thirds of SCRD spending ($514,333) on the region’s physical assets, plus $103,715 in salaries and $79,925 in EOC costs.
The 2022 drought, which saw an EOC active from late September to December, ate up three quarters ($268,506) of the local governments reported EOC operating costs and just over a third of related salary payments ($180,744), edging out salaries paid during the COVID pandemic activation ($179,483).
2021 drought conditions resulted in $3,235 in EOC operation costs, $53,860 in salaries and $138,777 in capital spending.
The weather-influenced landslide near the Chapman Creek water treatment plant in the final days of 2020 cost $164,210 in repairs, spending of $19,723 on salaries and $2,235 on EOC operations.
The frequency of SCRD EOC activations is on the increase. Between 2017 and 2019, it put four in place; three in 2019 and one in 2018.