World Conference on Disaster Management

The World Conference on Disaster Management kicked off with a real live example in early June, as local transit ground to a halt in host city Toronto due to a massive system-wide communications failure. The shutdown of the TTC subway and streetcar system on June 8, the first day of the conference, saw commuters stranded for an hour as subway trains were unable to contact each other or the main station. The event drew criticism from experts as all eyes will be on the Canadian city for the upcoming PanAm games in early July.

“They couldn’t send tweets, e-alerts, or emails. They couldn’t use the phones. Even [TTC chief Andy] Byford’s efforts to contact Mayor John Tory failed,” reported the National Post. “The TTC chief was asked if it was prudent to have the entire communications infrastructure of a mass transit system run from a single, apparently vulnerable, node. He acknowledged that no, with hindsight, it probably wasn’t.”

This marks the 25th year of the World Conference on Disaster Management, and some industry experts have noted the shift in the definition of disaster and emergency since then. Panel moderator and keynote speaker Peter Power, a crisis management consultant, spoke to the Toronto Star about the changes he has seen in his attendance over the last 15 years.

“It was more first-line-responder-focused. So there’d be demonstrations on great bits of machinery that would pick up brick walls, how to put up tents to house people who had been dislodged in an earthquake — stuff which is just as relevant now as it was then,” he said. “Now we’re exploring mitigation techniques. The world was quite different then but the technological advancements, funny enough — they don’t make crises less; in a way, they make them more prevalent, because the impact can be greater.”

The conference’s theme was “Managing Complex Disasters. Preparing for the Worst.” It featured panel discussions and sessions on a wide range of topics, ranging from the role of emergency management in healthcare with representatives from Public Health Ontario to how to control rumor in conflict zones.

A popular session with local media was “The Rise of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Is Canada prepared?” by Andrew Majoran, general manager at The Mackenzie Institute, and an intelligence analyst for Horizon Intelligence. “A lot of the time when a lone-wolf attack occurs, nobody had any idea it was coming," Majoran told the Canadian Press. "It's so difficult to gather intelligence on them. You're talking about a lone wolf who keeps to himself."

Majoran told the Canadian Press that community vigilance was key to handling this type of threat, and to guard against complacency with the familiar. “Lone wolves can slip through the cracks quite easily,"’ said Majoran in the article.

The conference, which ran from June 8 to 11, also included a hands-on session for 60 delegates to experience and coordinate a response to a large aircraft crash simulation in a major downtown core. The exercise, designed to train participants through a live and fully functional Emergency Operations Centre, took place on June 8.