Lessons learned from the Fort Mac wildfires

June is Disaster Preparedness Month, and I took the opportunity to have a conversation with Tara Clarke, the outgoing Executive Director of Fort McMurray SPCA, to hear what the organization learned about disaster preparedness after living through the largest animal disaster rescue in Canadian history: the Fort McMurray wildfires. It’s been just over a year since the wildfires hit, and the Fort McMurray community is still in the process of rebuilding and recovering.

Below, you’ll find the top five lessons that the Fort McMurray SPCA learned while helping to coordinate the on-the-ground response to the wildfires. Our hope is that these tips will help other animal welfare organizations across Canada to be more prepared for potential disasters.

TIP #1: PARTNER WITH AN ORGANIZATION OUTSIDE YOUR REGION
As an organization facing a disaster, it’s imperative that you create a formal partnership with a like-minded organization outside your jurisdiction. This partner organization can agree to take on critical tasks for the organization facing the disaster, such as setting up a fundraising campaign online, communicating with the public about the disaster, and taking in, storing and shipping physical donations to the agency facing the disaster (i.e.: pet carriers, food, leashes, collars, dog crates, etc.). This is about building a plan and a strategy for how you will access the infrastructure and support you need to help you get through the disaster. Your strategy should include a communications plan, a plan for receiving physical donations, a plan to create a hub or location where staff and volunteers of the affected agency can work, an evacuation plan for placing the shelter's animals into the care and custody of other animal welfare agencies for adoption, and a resource hub where residents of the affected area can get pet supplies and information about things like vet care and pet-friendly accommodations.

TIP #2: LINE UP SUPPORT FOR YOUR STAFF
With this kind of large-scale disaster, your staff will be affected both personally and at work. Essentially, we’re talking about people who have faced trauma trying to support people and animals who have faced trauma. Compassion fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder are common in situations like this, and the staff will need psychological and emotional support to get through it in a healthy way. Immediately after the wildfires, Fort McMurray SPCA brought in a number of trauma experts to lead sessions with the staff. The organization ensured that information about available supports and resources was posted in a visible place, and staff members were also directly educated about available services. It’s important to acknowledge the trauma out loud and ensure the work environment is compassionate and patient while people move through the trauma – which may take months or years. Support should begin immediately and continue as long as it’s needed. On-site support should be arranged for any debriefs or public consultations related to the disaster or its aftermath, including all future disaster preparedness training sessions. Be sure to rely on experts rather than taking this on internally.

TIP #3: EDUCATE PET OWNERS ABOUT DISASTER PREPAREDNESS
Pet owner education is something that needs to be ongoing to ensure that a population doesn’t become complacent about the steps they need to take to protect their animals in the case of disaster. It’s important that people register their pets so that the municipality knows where animals are located, what the animals’ names are and how many pets are in each location. This is especially critical if an evacuation is happening in your absence. It’s also important to have permanent identification for pets, like microchips or tattoos. In the very least, pets should have a collar and tag, which will make it much easier for strangers and first responders to help animals in an emergency. Ensure that pet owners also have an emergency pet kit packed and ready to go at all times. The emergency kit should include each pet’s full medical records, any medication that pets are taking, an extra leash and collar for each animal and pet first aid supplies like gauze, bandages, medical tape, alcohol wipes and a pair of medical scissors. Fort McMurray SPCA also recommends that animal welfare groups disseminate decals that pet owners can put on their windows at home to identify how many cats, dogs and other pets live there, and wallet cards so that people can mark down their address, pet information and the name of a person that first responders should contact in the event that the pet owner has a medical emergency to ensure that animals receive the care they need. Fort McMurray SPCA has developed a pet first aid kit that they’re handing out to residents who live within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and recommends that other animal welfare organizations do the same for their catchment areas, along with ongoing community education about disaster preparedness. Pet owners should also have an individual emergency plan, including a list of hotels or other accommodations that are pet-friendly and people who can help them or their animals in case of a personal or community emergency.

TIP #4: CREATE AN EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS FUND FOR YOUR COMMUNITY
Ninety per cent of the emergency funding that an organization will need comes in the months and years after the initial emergency response, and animal welfare organizations should prepare for that reality. The long-term impact on pet owners and the resources that they require after a disaster is enormous. For example, usage of the Fort McMurray SPCA pet food emergency bank is up by 1000 per cent since the wildfires, and owner surrender has increased by 39 per cent. In Fort McMurray, owner surrender has gone up for a number of reasons, including lack of pet-friendly housing after the loss of 2,400 residential buildings, loss or change of employment, change in financial circumstances or family/relationship breakdown. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of research or information out there about what kinds of costs can be expected post-disaster, but Fort McMurray has been working to document the programs and services their community has needed and how much they cost to provide. Once the documents are complete, they will be released to the public on Fort McMurray SPCA’s website here.

TIP #5: DEVELOP A MECHANISM OR TOOL TO ASSESS PET OWNER NEEDS
Develop a way to measure and quantify the needs of pet owners post-disaster, such as a community impact survey. Fort McMurray SPCA has distributed four surveys since the wildfires began, and the response has been enormous. They have received thousands of completed surveys from local residents, indicating their pet care support needs. That has helped the organization continue to track changing needs and ensure they’re being met. In the case of Fort McMurray, all of the surveys were distributed online, primarily through social media, and that was an effective tactic. The feedback was surprising, in that it was not what FMSPCA would have anticipated or assumed. The first community impact survey was sent out to pet owners in May 2016, immediately after the wildfires began, and three more have been distributed since. Download examples of Fort McMurray’s community impact surveys here and here

Many thanks to Tara Clarke of the Fort McMurray SPCA for sharing this hard-earned wisdom with us and for all that you’ve done for the animals during this incredibly trying time. Our thoughts are with FMSPCA as your community continues to rebuild. We wish Tara Clarke all the best in her new pursuits, and we’d like to take the opportunity to welcome Fort McMurray SPCA’s interim Executive Director, Misha Gaertner.

If you’d like to know more about Fort McMurray SPCA’s role in the 2016 wildfires, please go here to download Tara Clarke’s slides from her presentation at the 2017 National Animal Welfare Conference. Go here to watch a video of the full plenary presentation, which outlines the approach to the animal emergency response to the wildfires at the local, regional and provincial level.

Luna Allison spoke with Tara Clarke, former Executive Director of the Fort McMurray SPCA, on June 16, 2017.

About Luna Allison
Luna Allison is the Communications and Marketing Manager for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. She lives in Ottawa with her three favourite humans, a 15-year-old calico named Caramel and a senior pug named Pandy.
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Lessons learned from the Fort Mac wildfires
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