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Northern Ontario in crisis: emergency information not getting through

(TORONTO) – With cuts to emergency information staff, Ontario could be headed for its own firestorm such as British Columbia had in 2003 with unprecedented forest fire damage, says the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

Firestorm, a B.C. report, cited a lack of trained communicators to get timely, accurate information out to the public and media. As record numbers of fires rage out of control in Northern Ontario, poor information flow on the status and handling of the fires could lead to disaster, according to OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas.

“Of the four seasoned professionals dedicated to forest fire communications, only one remains,” says Thomas. “That’s a 75-per-cent reduction in expertise. Northerners are wondering whether to leave their homes, afraid for their safety and their possessions. They need information. Ontario was publicly criticized for forest fire communications deficiencies in 2007 and is repeating the mistake.”

Media and the public have had to turn to police, fire, and municipal services. Information pieced together from various sources may not be complete, current, or accurate, according to Pierre Verhelst, an aircraft maintenance engineer and president of OPSEU Local 605.

“Fire departments, the OPP, local police, and municipal leaders have their own jobs to do during emergencies. They can hardly be expected to do MNR’s work as well,” says Verhelst. “Without proper staffing in MNR’s emergency information services, citizens are not hearing what they need to hear, when they need to hear it, and with the level of detail they need.”

The area of Northern Ontario that’s on fire is equivalent to a 6-km swath from Mississauga to the east end of Oshawa; yet, there has been little media coverage outside the North. When the MNR cut information staff, it also cut the service that provided video to news outlets.

“When nobody’s telling the story, public safety is further compromised,” says Thomas. “This is a full-blown crisis. It is irresponsible, to say the least, for our provincial government to be taking the risks it’s taking with people’s safety and property.”

According to the MNR website, 11 new fires since yesterday bring the total to 335.

More information:

Warren (Smokey) Thomas,
President, OPSEU7