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What Toronto Should Learn From the Ice Storm Crisis

01/07/2014 05:10 EST | Updated 03/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne published an op-ed in the Toronto Star yesterday titled "What the government -- and its critics -- can learn from the ice storm." It fails miserably as a thoughtful after-action lessons-learned contribution, but is reasonably passable as a partisan campaign ad.

But, governments and their critics, including Premier Wynne, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and their respective supporters, detractors and civil servants, can and should learn a lot from the recent ice storm that hobbled North America's fourth largest city. I fear they may not.

In the op-ed, Wynne says her biggest learning was that "at any given moment in Ontario there are not $840,000 worth of gift cards available." If that's all her government has learned, then it's time for a new government.

Both the province and the city have meticulously crafted, regularly tested emergency plans. Both governments have well-paid, well-trained emergency management specialists on staff. Both have expensive emergency operations centres standing ready for the apocalypse.

Every crisis has failures. The real test for leaders is: what did you learn from them?

Both governments did many things well during the ice storm. And, the reactions of both governments failed in a number of key areas. This isn't a partisan shot. It's the truth. And, it's routine. I've been in the crisis leadership business, in one way or another, for 30 years now. Every crisis has successes. Every crisis has failures. Good crisis leaders learn from every incident and make themselves, and their organizations progressively better with experience.

The real test for Wynne and Ford will be in how they learn from this crisis.

Both governments should be conducting thorough after-action reviews to capture detailed lessons-learned. There are many lessons to learn from what went right -- and what went wrong. There is a best practice for these types of reviews, but the political leaders of both governments should do three things to make sure they get maximum value from them:

1. They should insist they begin as soon as possible. Don't let civil servants back-burner the reviews. They need to happen while memories are fresh and while there is still time to implement corrections before the next crisis -- which could happen at any time.

2. They should personally attend at least one of the emergency management committee debriefs. They'll get a great sense of how things went, they'll see first-hand who their strongest managers are, and they'll signal to everyone how important this process is.

The review process is not about assigning blame -- it's about learning lessons and improving processes. Good managers are honest about their mistakes and what didn't work well. They shouldn't be punished for owning up. What's worse are managers who don't learn from their mistakes.

3. They should appoint an outside crisis management expert to review the review. It makes sense to bring in an expert in crisis management who is not personally or professionally invested in the crisis to sit in on the review process and act as an "honest broker." An experienced expert will understand this process is not about assigning blame and won't be looking for scapegoats or heroes. But, he or she can help ensure the hard questions are asked and staff aren't allowed to skate over issues with vague answers.

These three measures will maximize the value of the lessons learned from this crisis. Until it's complete, it's hard to know the answers to what went right and what went wrong. But some questions that should be explored include:

  • Do criteria for declaring an emergency need to be more clearly developed and communicated?
  • How did Toronto Hydro establish its priority list for re-energizing the power grid and customers? Are changes required?
  • Why was one subway line left inoperable so long? Was that a TTC decision or a Hydro decision?
  • Why did part of Toronto's 9-1-1 dispatch centre fail? Why did continuity plans not provide a seamless rollover to backup power and continuous operations? How can it be improved?
  • Why did City of Toronto email, blackberry and other communication servers fail? How can this be prevented in future?
  • Did Toronto make best use of modern communication media including websites and social media to keep public informed of critical information? Did they make best use of traditional media, including radio?
  • Why were major intersections left uncontrolled so long? Why weren't police or other trained, uniformed personnel used for traffic control earlier? What needs to change? Could other measures have been used e.g. portable generators to power traffic lights?
  • Why weren't door-to-door canvasses to identify/assist vulnerable persons begun earlier? Should police do those? If not, whom? What is the role of private landlords in an emergency? How can they be engaged in the crisis response process?
  • How did Toronto's new relationship with the Canadian Red Cross work out? Can it be improved? Can it be expanded?
  • How else can we involve volunteers and existing community groups and leaders?
  • What is the role of political leaders in a crisis? How are they kept informed? Can this process be improved?
  • How was the food gift card distribution process developed? Why was the demand not anticipated? Why were the criteria not clearly communicated? How could the process be improved?

About those food gift cards

I'm on record ridiculing the distribution of the gift cards. I don't want to pre-judge the after-action review, but I also feel it's important not to throw the baby out with the bath water or fail to give credit where it's due. Here are my salient observations:

  • It was a nice idea. Full points to government for recognizing a problem and trying to act. Most grocery stores were closed (it's a law!) on Christmas and Boxing Day. So, the stores were busy when open and people stocked up on food for the holidays. People on social assistance were paid a week early so they had money for Christmas, and they had longer to go until their next pay day. A long power outage for many meant their food spoiled in the fridge -- putting it outside in the cold was impractical or impossible for many in low-rent housing.
  • Only a fool wouldn't have anticipated. Giving away free money? How hard was it to anticipate a huge demand? Apparently, too hard for someone in government. If you could provide only 100 gift cards to each location, knowing there would be hundreds or thousands lining up for them, perhaps there should have been fewer locations -- or another means of distribution.
  • Food Banks were not necessarily the answer. An early version of the distribution plan considered using food banks. But, I spoke with Gail Nyberg, Executive Director of Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank and she pointed out this plan was never finalized. For good reason, it seems, including the fact most food banks rely on volunteer labour and were closed over the holidays. A recent suggestion that food should have been distributed through the food bank system instead of gift cards, doesn't make any sense either. Most food banks are not set up to handle perishable food -- the kind of food that spoiled in powerless refrigerators and freezers.
  • Donors offered gift cards for a reason. Many critics have suggested cash should have been distributed, or direct deposits made to the accounts of those receiving social assistance, instead of using gift cards. But, that's looking a gift horse in the mouth. The private sector ponied up about half a million dollars worth of gift cards -- they didn't offer cash. There's a reason for that and it's because they can be more generous with gift cards: if the average retail grocery markup is about 40% (and I'm not saying it is, that's just an example) then a $100 gift voucher will actually cost the retailer only about 60. So, they can distribute more value that way. And, it is value: $100 worth of groceries is $100 worth of groceries, no matter what the retailer's cost is. If retailers gave cash, they would have been able to give less cash. It may have been nicer and more fungible, but that's not what was offered, was it?
  • The real problem with the Gift Card Program. When the reviews are complete, we may very well discover the real lesson learned is: government can't act that fast when partnering with the private sector on a value-card program. It takes longer. If there's merit in the gift card concept, perhaps the government should pre-arrange for a large stock of generic value cards to be available on 48 hours notice from a supplier who can load donated value on them on demand. Either that, or rapid-response programs should be limited to direct deposit or cash delivery. The other failings likely to be confirmed are: poor communication and implementation of program qualification criteria.

Ice Storm 2013