Canadian companies help out with hurricane cleanup

Hydro One, Air Canada employees step up down south
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/16/2017
Air Canada
Air Canada volunteers in Toronto prepare humanitarian kits to be shipped down to hurricane-stricken areas last month. Credit: Air Canada

The southern United States and Caribbean islands were hit hard by a number of powerful hurricanes recently, leaving many people without electricity or supplies, alongside months of cleanup.

Many Canadian companies offered support to the affected areas, sending manpower and supplies to aid in the recovery efforts. Hydro One, for example, mobilized 175 workers and 82 vehicles to help with Hurricane Irma restoration efforts in Florida.

Atlantic companies such as Maritime Electric, Emera and Newfoundland Power also sent workers, as did Hydro-Québec.

 “At the end of the day, we’re all connected, whether it be through the grid or through our roads or through borders,” said Natalie Poole-Moffatt, vice-president of corporate affairs at Hydro One in Toronto. “We all have to pull together for this.”

Air Canada, in partnership with GlobalMedic, dispatched humanitarian flights loaded with relief supplies to Turks and Caicos and Antigua in support of the cleanup efforts. And Sunwing sent a flight loaded with emergency supplies.

As a global carrier, natural disasters become personal for the Canadian airline, said Kevin O’Connor, managing director of operations at Air Canada’s control centre in Brampton, Ont.

“Just because something’s not happening in Canada (doesn’t mean) we won’t reach out to somewhere else to support them,” he said. 

“We talk about it internally all the time; if you see another employee in trouble, you’re supposed to help them. And we do… it’s just an extension of our corporate culture.”

Mutual aid agreements

North America is divided into eight regions for mutual aid assistance among utility organizations, according to Poole-Moffatt. When disasters occur, the affected jurisdiction issues a call for aid to its regional allies, with escalation possible depending on proximity and need.

All costs are covered by the utility receiving the aid. Typical emergency assignments see crews dispatched for two weeks at a time, she said.

As Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas prior to Irma’s devastation in Florida, Hydro One began taking stock of available full- and part-time crew and equipment. 

“In this case, we had had a few days to take a really good look at our availability,” said Poole-Moffatt. “We look at our work programs and what we can change or move for that period of time.” 

“It’s really about ensuring that our ratepayers are kept safe and our customers are safe, and that we can go down there and support and get the lights on down in Florida. It’s a lot of moving pieces but we make sure that we can cover the whole territory,” she said.

For this mission, Hydro One employees were stationed in Miami, where they helped restore power to a large segment of the city, then turned to problems incurred by individual homeowners in terms of downed trees and wires, said Poole-Moffatt.

“We’re averaging getting 2,000 people a day back on power,” she said. “The teams have been doing a great job down there and we’re really, really proud of the work they’ve done… It’s an incredible sense of pride to be able to get onto your truck and get into the convoy of 50 vehicles heading south with Canadian flags, knowing that you’re going down there to make a difference in other peoples’ lives.”

Logistics, planning key

In Hydro One’s case, a database puts out the call to 5,500 full-time employees, enabling rapid roster formation. The company refers to a highly detailed crisis communications strategy as well.

“This is what Hydro One is good at,” said Poole-Moffatt. “We have a very diverse territory geographically. We have dense treed areas, populated areas. We operate in snow, in rain, in sleet. This is what we do, so we are very good and very co-ordinated in how we do it.” 

“People have to ensure that they have their passports and that they’re ready to travel,” she said. “It takes about 300 people to get all of this organized, when you talk about the crew numbers and ensuring that we have visas and being sure we can get the trucks moving and that we have mechanics. It takes a lot of people to get this to work, but it’s all for such a great cause.”

As for Air Canada, the company’s humanitarian mission began with a request to transport power electricians into Turks and Caicos in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, said O’Connor. Air Canada has plans in place for crises response and checklists with preferred supplies needed in post-hurricane situations. 

The flight presented an opportunity to fill the plane’s cargo hold with supplies in co-ordination with reputable humanitarian organizations, he said. 

Typically, hurricane situations allow enough prep time to get supplies ready and into the disaster zone as soon as it is safe to do so, said O’Connor.

“It takes a large team to make a rescue mission operate… it was put together in about 24 hours.”

While required staff such as pilots and flight attendants are paid for these type of trips, work such as packing emergency kits including water purification kits is all volunteer, he said. 

“We’re a profit company,” said O’Connor. “We’re here to make money. But there’s some things you do to cover costs and there’s some things you do to make money. When you’re trying to just cover costs, it’s a different operation.”

Employee participation

Air Canada’s humanitarian efforts are largely driven by the firm’s 30,000 employees, said O’Connor.

“The employees want to be part of this,” he said. “They see the world news, the daily news, the tragedies… Something in far-east Asia might not be as close to home for some other people in southern Ontario as it is for us because our crews fly over there, stay in hotels, and get to know (members of the community). Air Canada has relationships all over the world.”

“The easiest part, when we make a decision to do this, is getting the employees to do it… It’s the nature of the company culture. They want to jump in… We are inundated at operations with the amount of people that want to be part of this. They want to be there and they want to help.”

When a company stands behind a cause, it shows corporate compassion, and employees want to feel as if they are contributing to a greater cause, said Detry Carragher, principal management consultant at CarvoGroup in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Ideally, all organizations should prepare value statements outlining their corporate social responsibilities, she said. 

For employers looking to lend resources to a humanitarian effort, it’s important to ensure the underlying motivation is appropriate, she said.

Often, multinational corporations will have branch offices in the affected area — reason enough to send resources to help them get back up and running. 

“There’s a real adverse effect to Canadian companies when there’s a disaster in another region,” said Carragher. 

But it’s also important that employers are not simply “philanthropic opportunists,” she said, noting that insurance reimbursements in mutual aid agreements are often generous.

“There’s two sides that I would see — the story that’s told in the media and then the story that’s created in the boardrooms: ‘What’s the impact to our business? Is this an opportunity for us to get involved? Or is this a good opportunity for branding?’”

Regardless of motivation, lending a hand is the socially responsible action for employers, she said. 

“Helping your neighbour is the right thing to do.”

Small businesses unable to spare staff still have goodwill options, such as fundraising barbecues, said Carragher.

“Any contribution is helpful with whatever companies see fit, and whatever they’re capable of doing. Giving a dollar is equally as important as the company that can send staff down… The more creative companies are with it, the better. The more outlandish your contribution — which isn’t always financial — the more people will hear about it.”

And don’t be afraid to partner with other businesses, said O’Connor.

“You’re better with more bandwidth, more support. Just because you’re a small business doesn’t mean you can’t be part of something great.”

From a branding perspective,  employers should choose whether public or private recognition of their efforts are more valuable, said Carragher.

“While there’s people who are being recognized publicly in the news, there’s probably equally or more companies who are doing it privately and going unrecognized.”

If public recognition is decided upon, leveraging social media to tell the story of an organization’s efforts is worthwhile. 

“There’s nothing wrong with any of these things because, at the end of the day, you’re helping a neighbour,” said Carragher. “If you think of any time someone’s in crisis, you’ll always remember who came out and gave you a helping hand.”

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