Room for the River: Applying Dutch Flood Mitigation Strategies in Canada

Image source: High River RCMP (retrieved from http://www.calgaryherald.com/)

During the catastrophic flooding which impacted southern Alberta in June 2013, the Town of High River, located 76 km south of Calgary, was particularly hard hit. The flooding required the evacuation of the town of 13,000, and the displacement of over 100,000 across southern Alberta. 

Following the flooding, as a part of future flood mitigation efforts, Mayor Craig Snodgrass announced that the Wallaceville district of High River, would be “returned to its natural state as a measure aimed at providing increased flood protection to the town.” The Province of Alberta developed a floodway buyout program for affected residents, and removed all structures and infrastructure in subsequent months. 

This highlights an emerging trend in DRR scholarship, regarding ‘building back better’ following a disaster. Paradoxically, in many cases, ‘building back better’ means not building back at all. Additional mitigation efforts, including the Springbank Reservoir west of Calgary, continue to be the source of much debate among area residents.

As the cost of extreme weather events continues to rise, emergency management professionals are working with municipal planners on how to minimize vulnerability via a risk-based approach. Unfortunately, knowing the risks has not prevented municipalities continuing to allow development in high-risk areas such as floodplains, wildland-urban interphase or areas prone to erosion and settling. 

In a 2019 doctoral thesis written by Lynne Njeri Mbajiorgu for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, she studied how four small to medium sized municipalities implemented resilience programs for flood, wildfire and drought risks. In particular, Mbajiorgu notes inconsistency in the application of risk-based, and risk avoidance measures with respect to flood plain management. Any such efforts should err on the side of reducing future risk exposure and vulnerability.

To remedy these inconsistencies, Mbajiorgu recommends a proactive prioritization of land-use planning as a mitigation measure. She argues that land-use planners have a particular responsibility to work closely with municipal officials “to influence, guide and advice decision-makers about risk mitigation measures throughout the land-use development process, starting from bare undeveloped land to the issuance of development permits.” (Mbajiorgu, 2019). 

In a bid to reduce risk and mitigate the impact of severe flood damage, in 2007 the Netherlands embarked on the ‘Room for the River Programme’ (RFRP) to manage and restore the rivers’ natural flood plain. The 30 projects completed to date have resulted in measures to give the river the space to flood safely, while improving the quality of the immediate surroundings. 

In a study done by Eva A. Bogdan at the University of Alberta, she compared and contrasted flood mitigation approaches adopted by the Netherlands and the Alberta government. Similar to the conclusions reached by Mbajiorgu, the report concluded that while many Albertans support the RFRP approach, there is a misalignment in governance frameworks that would enable greater collaboration. As Bogdan states: “Extensive technical advances have been made in flood management, but to effectively address this wicked problem, better understanding and innovations are also needed in the social dimensions, including coordination of policies and practices as well as collaboration between stakeholders.” Bogdan identifies an existing knowledge gap in the current literature, requiring further and systematic comparative analysis. 

What are your thoughts? How have your governments addressed the need for greater flood mitigation to protect homes and properties? I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how the Dutch approach can be applied to other jurisdictions.

Adapting ICS in a Knowledge-Based Response

Learning from the 2003 SARS pandemic to inform pandemic response

In a prior post, I made reference to a study completed by the IBM Centre for the Business of Government, Adapting the Incident Command Model for Knowledge-Based Crises. That report drew on lessons learned during prior pandemic responses, including the 2002 outbreak of West Nile Virus and the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The 2003 outbreak of SARS saw the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) rely on a team-based approach composed of subject matter experts in nine areas, with additional teams added on an ad hoc basis. Notably, this structure did not incorporate the ICS principle of “span of control” (the number of personnel to be supervised by a manager), and the scope of the leadership team increased to 15 teams, plus several ad hoc groups. In essence, “the CDCP viewed its emergency operations staff as filling an advisory role rather than a leadership role during the [2003 SARS outbreak] crisis.” (Ansell and Keller, 2014).

During the SARS response, the average staffing level (span of control) was 18. Learning from the challenges experienced as a result of the scale of the outbreak led the CDCP to incorporate ICS during its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, the lack of training throughout all parts of the CDCP led to organizational confusion. My colleague Timothy Riecker has written extensively on how the current ICS training curriculum can be improved, with a focus on application as opposed to rote theory-based learning. 

Fast forward to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response. In the second phase of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response, the CDCP incorporated a number of key changes to the traditional ICS model:

  • The role of the Incident Commander has been relegated to a supporting role to the CDCP Director, a position appointed by the U.S. President
  • Two roles, the Chief of Staff and the Deputy Incident Manager were created – reporting to the Incident Manager.
  • The operations, planning, logistics and finance/administration functions reported to a Chief of Staff rather than to the Incident Manager (IM).
  • The technical specialty unit, (traditionally a part of the planning section), formed the core of the incident management structure, reporting to the IM. These five “task forces” were Epidemiology/Lab, Community mitigation, Medical care and countermeasures, Vaccine and State coordination.
  • A plans decision unit was created, under the direction of a Deputy Incident Manager in order to “vet” incoming information. A “B” team was also added to provide a second set of eyes in vetting CDCP decisions.
  • A joint information center was elevated. Managed by the Deputy IM, the role of information center was expanded.
  • The policy unit was created 

As I have written previously, in my view ICS does not require adaptation, and can scale to any scenario. Having said that, I believe it is worth examining alternate approaches to continually refine and perfect our field. 

While I have a number of critiques of the changes incorporated by the CDCP, I am particularly interested to hear your thoughts. What changes would you keep (if any?) 

To receive future posts automatically in your inbox each Wednesday morning, click here to subscribe.

Learning from the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Response


Subscribe to receive the latest posts each Wednesday morning here.

The ICS model remains a universal command and control standard for crisis response. In contrast to traditional operations-based response, the COVID-19 pandemic has required a ‘knowledge based’ framework. 

A fundamental element of ICS is the rapid establishment of a single chain of command. Once established, a basic organization is put in place including the core functions of operations, planning, logistics and finance/administration. In the face of a major incident, there is potential for people and institutions to work at cross purposes. The ICS model avoids this by rapidly integrating people and institutions into a single, integrated response organization preserving the unity of command and span of control. Support to the Incident Commander (the Command Staff) includes a Public Information Officer (PIO), a Liaison Officer and a Safety Officer.

In a study done by Chris Ansell and Ann Keller for the IBM Center for the Business of Government in 2014, the response of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) to the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic was examined in depth. In examining the response, a number of prior outbreak responses were reviewed. Prior to the widespread adoption of ICS, “the CDCP viewed its emergency operations staff as filling an advisory role rather than a leadership role during the crisis” (Ansell and Keller, 2014). This advisory function was the operating principle of the 2003 SARS outbreak response.

ICS was created to coordinate responses that often extend beyond the boundaries of any individual organizations’ capacity to respond. Considering the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response, the authors outline three features complicated the use of the traditional ICS paradigm:

  • The overall mission in a pandemic response is to create authoritative knowledge rather than the delivery of an operational response;
  • The use of specialized knowledge from a wide and dispersed range of sources; and 
  • The use of resources to manage external perceptions of the CDCP’s response.

In response to these unique features, the authors of the study have advocated seven adaptations to the ‘traditional’ ICS structure. These adaptations will be examined in depth in a future post.

Notwithstanding the unique challenges of a ‘knowledge-based’ response, the ‘traditional’ ICS structure is well-equipped to adapt and scale to the needs of any incident. While it is true that a ‘knowledge-based’ response differs from an operational one, this is not inconsistent with the two top priorities of the ICS model: #1: Life Safety and #2: Incident (Pandemic) Stabilization. The objectives of the incident will determine the size of the organization. Secondly, the modular ICS organization is able to rapidly incorporate specialized knowledge and expand/contract as the demands of the incident evolve. Finally, assigning resources to monitor external communications will remain the purview of the PIO as a member of Command Staff.

When the studies are written on the use of ICS in the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you think will be the key take-aways? As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts and ideas for future topics.

version of this post was previously featured on the Exploring Emergency Management & Homeland Security Blog by Timothy Riecker, CEDP.

Preparing for the ‘Next Normal’

Five shifts that will impact post-pandemic Business Continuity Planning

In the current turbulent disaster landscape, the requirement for organizations to have a comprehensive business continuity management (BCM) framework in place has never been greater. While it may be too soon to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, the study of prior pandemics offers some useful statistics. In a Globe and Mail article published November 12, 2009, the ‘worst case scenario’ impact of the H1N1 pandemic was discussed.

In the 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak for example, the existence of BCM plans and remote-working models were credited with an overall minor disruption in economic activity. Considering the much more pronounced impact of the Coronavirus, world trade has been estimated to contract by 13% to 32% in 2020, according to the World Trade Organization

In a study examining the ‘next normal’, McKinsey & Company has considered five shifts that will impact businesses and organizations post-pandemic:

A shift in demand. Predictably, consumers have been reconfiguring their spending on discretionary purchases towards digital options. The study indicates that those jurisdictions that have reopened prior to the peak of the infection curve have experienced greater volatility in consumer spending.

A shift in the workforce. As consumers and businesses transition to ‘remote working’ models, an erosion of culture and a greater ‘siloing’ effect has been observed. The report authors predict that the potential for two ‘cultures’ – one for those onsite, another for those virtual – could form. In assessing all the risks to which your organization may be vulnerable, it’s important to ask what role corporate culture plays.

A shift in expectations. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a stable, resilient supply chain. These needs have been demonstrated by the greater expectation for suppliers to demonstrate the presence and implementation of a BCM framework.

A shift in regulatory uncertainty. The pandemic has resulted in increased political pressure to enact protectionist regulations and legislation. What risk does this present to businesses and organizations relying on cross-border trade? What ripple effects on government policy, supply chains and consumer behaviours need to be taken into account in developing an effective BCM plan?

A shift in virus intelligence. As safety interventions and tools continue to evolve to protect citizens, exhaustion is setting in – demonstrated by those refusing to follow public health guidelines. Paradoxically, this exhaustion is likely to lead to additional ‘waves’ of transmission and the capacity of authorities to contain it.

A comprehensive BCM framework is needed by all organizations, including specialized mechanisms for assessing risk. Exercise and evaluation programs are critical to ensuring the efficacy of the plan. By exercising the BCM in a low risk environment, challenges and improvements can be identified while avoiding losses to critical data and infrastructure. As an accredited Business Continuity Professional, I can help your organization answer and develop these frameworks.

What do you think? How has COVID-19 impacted your organizations’ BCM planning efforts? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.