Alta. introduces proposals to help municipalities better handle disasters

The Alberta government is hoping new regulatory changes will help municipalities better respond to fires, flooding or other natural disasters in their communities.

The proposed changes were tabled in the legislature today. The province plans to consult municipalities, First Nation and Métis communities and citizens on the changes before going forward with them.

While more details are expected following the consultation, it’s proposed that the province develop a plan with municipalities that makes it clear who will be responsible for what, as well as provide local officials with new training programs that they are encouraged to practise. It’s expected training may cost a few thousand dollars for some municipalities that aren’t as prepared.

Currently, municipalities are responsible for any emergency events, unless the province declares a state of emergency. Those responsibilities won’t change, but the proposed regulations note that some municipal emergency plans could be improved. As well, not every municipality has a full-time emergency management director to declare states of emergency.

Better co-ordination between municipalities and first responders is also part of the proposed changes.

In the past, there have been cases where communication could’ve been better during evacuations, according to government audits. For instance, during the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016, communication broke down when one fire crew chief failed to inform the municipality that the fire was approaching the city. Instead, the municipality learned through social media about the imminent threat. There have also been calls for better communication following the Slave Lake fire in 2011 and the southern Alberta floods in 2013.

On top of that, the government has said such disasters are becoming more common. For instance, fires in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan last fall erupted and spread quickly, affecting various farms and ranches, as well as killing James Hargrave, a young rancher and volunteer firefighter.

While provincial officials have noted those southern Alberta fires were handled fairly well, they said these new regulations likely would have made responsibilities more clear. For instance, the county, the town, national defence units and national park officials would communicate and figure out how to best tackle the situation.

As for other proposed changes, the province is recommending that it’s made clear to citizens that if they refuse to evacuate during an evacuation order, they are accepting the liability of their actions. This rule is currently in place, but municipalities have been asking for more clarity because some have been worried that they could be liable for citizens’ actions. If a person fails to evacuate under an order, they could face a $10,000 fine or prison time for up to a year. They could also face a combination of jail time and fines.

As well, it’s proposed that if the province or municipality damages someone’s property for reasons related to the emergency, the person will be reimbursed after submitting to the province a monetary value that they believe is the dollar amount of the damages incurred. If the province disagrees with that monetary value, however, the parties can go for arbitration and figure out a settlement. If property is damaged by the disaster, citizens will have to rely on insurance.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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