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RISING SEAS: Emergency planning a priority for new HRM division chief

Emergency Management with the HRM, poses for a photo on the Dartmouth waterfront on Friday afternoon. Fleck took on the position in March.
Emergency Management with the HRM, poses for a photo on the Dartmouth waterfront on Friday afternoon. Fleck took on the position in March. - Ryan Taplin

Preparing for the worst

Note: Sea levels are rising at a pace unparalleled in modern times and storms are becoming more intense as a result of global warming. This story is part of a weeklong series examining our rising oceans, the impact on our region and what government, scientists and others are doing to track change and mitigate damage.

Click here to read the series.

Erica Fleck has borrowed the scout mantra of always being prepared.

“It’s not only how we respond to emergencies, we’re hoping that the more prepared, the less the need for response,” said Fleck, who took over the role of division chief of emergency management with Halifax Regional Municipality in March.

“We are working with all (municipal) business units,” Fleck said. “Obviously, we don’t want people to build on a floodplain, for example. We’re trying to manage it that way so that it requires less of a response. We want to be more preventative than responsive.”

The prevention plan includes visiting all communities within the municipality to do risk assessments and emergency planning, not only for sea level rise but for winter storms and other emergencies.

“The risks equal the hazards and the vulnerabilities, the exposures to the impacts and our capacity to cope,” Fleck said. “We are looking at all of those things with the climate variability and the extreme weather that we are seeing.”

Fleck said that rising sea levels is a top priority for her department. Unfortunately, so are fires, flooding and other emergency events.

“Our contingency plans all kind of roll in together, regardless if it’s sea level, flooding, fire, they kind of go hand in hand from an emergency management perspective so that we are prepared for anything.”

Still, evacuation scenarios keep Fleck up at night.

“As soon as I got here, I started developing evacuation plans for communities,” she said earlier this summer. “We just did our first one a couple of weeks ago out in Westwood Hills (near Upper Tantallon). It’s pretty well one road in and out. In the event of a fire, flood or anything, those are the communities that worry me.”

Fleck said she and her team look at the risks and come up with plans for different scenarios.

“If people can’t move their cars, can we go in and pick them up with a bus? We have the firetrucks go out and they do the route. They identify any driveway that they can’t have access to, like a house that’s far back. We put all that information in a system that all of the public safety units use together if we should ever have a call to those areas.”

In Lunenburg County, there’s less money and planning to go around but Mayor Carolyn Bolivar-Getson said the safety of residents always takes precedence.

“We want to make sure that we will be able to get them out in the event that we would need to,” Bolivar-Getson said of the 25,000 municipal residents.

Shannon Miedema, energy and environment program manager for HRM, said the municipality wants to hear from a good number of its 431,000 residents about what is needed to prepare for the challenges that climate change and rising sea levels bring.

“We are working on this, we need partners on this and we need to hear from the community on this,” Miedema said. “Are you prepared? There are a lot of resources. It is just not top of mind for people until something happens.”

Fleck said her team’s efforts do not extend beyond municipal boundaries but she would like to see memos of understanding with other municipal units “so that we can all work together in case of emergencies.”

“If Pictou County floods or there’s a fire there, we can go and help them and vice-versa.”

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