CBRM officials look for improvements to comfort centre operations

Officials in Cape Breton Regional Municipality are already talking about ways to improve aid to citizens after Dorian struck over the weekend.

On Wednesday, members of CBRM’s fire and emergency services committee said they want details on comfort centres — such as locations and hours of operation — announced ahead of a storm, and they said supplies should be stationed at those centres in advance.

John Dilny, the municipality’s manager of emergency management, said the first suggestion is difficult, but the second is under discussion.

He said that’s because comfort centres — or the routes to them — may be inaccessible due to downed trees, power outages or flooding.

“When we announce that we want people to go to a comfort centre, we want to ensure when we announce that that it’s safe to do so, so that is one of the biggest reasons we hold back on pre-announcing the opening of comfort centres or shelters,” he said.

Stocking supplies

Dilny said it may be possible to stock the centres with supplies ahead of time, but someone will have to cover the cost.

“We never had that issue before,” he said.

“It has come up this time and it may be because there were a lot of stores that were closed, so the suggestion that we have supplies on hand to deliver those to the comfort centres is something that we can certainly look at, but it has to be done collectively and we have to have the resources to do that.” 

Mayor Cecil Clarke said he has already asked EMO Minister Chuck Porter for a discussion on resources to make those improvements.

The mayor said he’s not criticizing emergency officials or volunteers, but he said there must be ways to modernize the municipality’s response to major weather events.

“The accuracy of weather forecasting has changed,” he said.

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke says there must be ways to modernize the municipality’s response to major weather events. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

“This is not 20 years ago. We’re actually watching, real-time, weather systems move.

“We’re in a modern era where information is instantaneous. At the same time, when power goes out, if you lose your battery on your phone, then how do you know where a comfort centre is going to be?”

Deputy fire Chief Chris March also said it could be a mistake to announce comfort centre details ahead of time.

For example, he noted the Glace Bay fire hall was designated as a possible comfort centre prior to the 2016 Thanksgiving Day flood, but the building and the parking lot ended up flooded because of the 220 millimetres of rain that fell in one day.

Chris March, CBRM’s deputy fire chief, says it’s safer for first responders and the public if details on comfort centres are announced after a storm has passed. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

“It wasn’t safe for anybody to be there,” he said.

“It was tough enough for the firefighters and responders, let alone the public, so if you pre-announce where to go before you know what the conditions are going to be, it’s safer to wait post-storm.”

‘Level of confusion’

Dilny said one of the problems is that there is a “level of confusion” around responsibility and expectations in a storm’s aftermath.

He said comfort centres only offer warming, charging and hot beverages.

They are a municipal responsibility and are usually run by volunteer organizations, Dilny said.

Emergency shelters are opened by municipalities, but funded by the provincial Department of Community Services. They are run by the Red Cross and can include more services, including overnight sleeping.

A table supplied by CBRM’s manager of emergency management, John Dilny, shows the number of people who used comfort centres over three days after Dorian hit the region. (Submitted by John Dilny)

Dilny said comfort centres were only developed after Hurricane Juan in 2003 and widespread power outages caused by a storm in 2004.

Since then, and especially after the 2016 flood, CBRM officials have agreed on four designated buildings for emergency comfort centres or shelters, he said.

They are:

  • Grand Lake Road fire hall.
  • Reserve Mines fire hall.
  • North Sydney Firemen’s Club.
  • New Waterford fire hall.

Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Organization recommends people prepare to stay in their home for 72 hours after a storm.

Dilny said it’s been agreed CBRM would follow that guideline, and that comfort centres or shelters would only be announced publicly after a storm has passed.

That protocol is for the safety of volunteers and the public, he said, and it was agreed upon again last week at an emergency preparedness meeting in advance of Dorian’s arrival.

After Dorian, the main comfort centres opened and were supplemented by fire halls in Glace Bay, Big Pond and Gabarus, and the Centre 200 arena in Sydney.

MORE TOP STORIES